The Bridges of Frederick County

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

Frederick county has seen a fair amount of bridge work this past year or so.

A new bridge over Carroll Creek extended Monocacy Boulevard from Gas House Pike past the airport. Now, it’s an easy trip from Walkersville to Frederick Airport.

Repainting work on the old span of the MD26 Bridge over the Monocacy River is nearing completion. The environmental-containment tent has been removed from one of the spans to reveal a lovely green-painted structure. Repair and rejuvenation work on the bridge has been going on for several years now. When completed, that old truss bridge will last for another thirty years.

Work to replace the I-70 Bridge over Reichs Ford Road has also been completed. The old span had a bad case of salt rot and was only four lanes wide. The new bridge is simply beautiful architecturally-speaking and also engineering-wise: six lanes wide and long enough to accommodate widening Reichs Ford Road to four lanes. Good job!

Replacement of the Motter Avenue Bridge over US15 is proceeding. The bypass span is now in use and the old span is being demolished. It’s not clear why this bridge was chosen for replacement but maybe it also had a bad case of salt rot.

The next major bridge project will probably be the Monocacy Boulevard/US15 interchange north of town. That interchange would provide a major link in the Monocacy Boulevard bypass on the east side of town.

Interstate 270, however, has the greatest need for new bridge spans. Like it or not I-270 needs two additional lanes to handle traffic to and from Montgomery County. Two additional lanes will require six new bridge spans. Rather than expanding the highway in one fell swoop, why not add expansion spans exit by exit and spread the cost over several construction years?

The interchanges with MD85 south of Frederick and with MD80 at Urbana would be prime candidates for expansion spans. Overflow lanes on I-270 would ease the flow of traffic on and off the Interstate. The remaining bottleneck would be the MD109 interchange but that’s in Montgomery County and might not be our problem. Once the expansion spans are in place, it should be a relatively straight-forward process to add two additional lanes to I-270.

A few years ago the State Highway Administration floated the idea of installing a State-owned toll road down the I-270 median. The scheme wouldn’t solve existing congestion problems and wouldn’t be a great money-maker either. To provide paying customers with unimpeded runs up and down the toll road, traffic flow must be limited to avoid congestion. This is accomplished by structuring tolls so the price goes up during high-demand hours, which ensures that proletarians will be less inclined to use the tollway. The restricted traffic flow places a limit on toll revenue (by my estimate, about $50 million per year).

The rub is that Interstate Highways must, by law, be toll free. The State could use the old name-change dodge. That’s what they did with the Inter-County Connector in Montgomery County. They named it MD200, which means it’s not part of the Federal Interstate Highway System. The ICC, however, was mostly built with Federal funding (which will never be repaid, by the way). So, the proposed I-270 tollway could be named MD270 and irksome details in Federal law could be ignored. (Never mind that Federal funds would be needed for its construction. For that matter, let’s just forget the Rule of Law.)

Which leaves a basic economic question: Would $50-million per year be a sufficient return on investment to justify the $4-billion initial cost of the tollway? (A question such as this should probably be viewed as a non sequitur in a Democrat-run State. Toll revenue apparently goes into the general fund and is never connected with the cost of generating the revenue. Nobody knows if the State’s toll roads and bridges are profitable. Democrats just don’t think that way.)

One more detail: The restricted toll lane traffic flow would also guarantee that congestion in the four free lanes would not change and would be as bad as it is now. The toll lanes simply wouldn’t offload enough traffic to ease congestion in the free lanes. Eventually, six free lanes will be required to handle future traffic flow. The toll road idea deserves to be forgotten.

Shoulder lanes for commuter bus use are now being floated as a scheme for bypassing congestion on I-270. Ten-thousand-pound buses would cause serious wear on the existing shoulders, however, and the shoulders would need to be strengthened. That would leave you with a highway with no shoulders, so might as well add them while you’re at it. Voila! The highway would have two additional lanes.

The other obvious problem with the idea is that the buses would need to merge in and out at each of the existing interchanges because – you guessed it – the bridges are only two lanes wide. One way around this might be to let the buses run down the exit ramp at each exchange, cross over the road below, and run up the opposite entry ramp to continue on their way – providing, of course, that commuter traffic isn’t backed up on the on-ramp.

It might be simpler and far cheaper to just add two additional lanes to I-270 and let it go at that.

Modern highway design is a ferment of ideas for new ways to get vehicles from here to there. SHA engineers investigated several different designs for highway interchanges that would eliminate the original cloverleaf design concept. They even published a paper in a professional journal extolling the virtues of their new designs. The paper, however, doesn’t present any data showing that the new designs would be superior to existing designs like a simple cloverleaf interchange.

SHA engineers have proposed a cross-over design for the MD85 interchange that would require additional signal lights to regulate traffic flow in the interchange. It would be similar to the East Street interchange on I-70. No estimates have been provided, however, to indicate how the new design would work with (year) 2030 rush-hour traffic. In my opinion the simple clover-leaf design is still the best and expansion spans with additional overflow lanes on I-270 would make it work. Unfortunately, SHA engineers may be painted into a corner and may not have enough space for simple designs. Their proposed new designs are guaranteed to be obsolescent in ten years.

The rail overpass over MD75 in Monrovia is another problem urgently needing a solution. The I-70/MD75 interchange at New Market creates a demand for a road link with Urbana and I-270 via MD80. Big trucks must be able to get through there if for no other reason than to make local deliveries (moving vans, for instance).

Fixing the overpass is the responsibility of the railroad company that owns it. They, however, can barely afford to maintain their track ways much less build anything new, so it will probably devolve to the State to provide funding for a new overpass.

MD75 through Monrovia must inevitably be upgraded if for no other reason than to serve the communities already there. Population growth and development in that area is inevitable. The State’s Smart Growth mentality doesn’t work in Frederick County where communities are spread out in a more rural setting.

State highways must provide for communities planned and already in existence. Highway improvements must inevitably look to the future. Bridges are a critical part of that future.

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