Driving I-270

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

Friends have asked why this blog is named Driving I-270 when many of the subjects discussed are political in nature. Originally, the idea arose out of my engineering interest in I-270 itself and transportation in general. But then, it became clear that transportation and politics are inextricably intertwined. Like a kudzu vine smothering a tree, politics has smothered the relatively straight-forward processes of highway development, producing discontinuities and poor traffic flow.

Politics made I-270 what it is today. The original plan in the 1970s was to run it from the Beltway on in to the District line. This would have taken the highway through already-established neighborhoods and required demolition of existing homes. Local opposition grew to the point that the plan was abandoned and I-270 now ends at the Beltway. Score one for local politics. (I-95 detours around the Beltway for similar reasons.)

The infamous “lane drop” at Clarksburg is a more-recent example of local politics at work. When I-270 was upgraded in the 1980s, Montgomery County got the bulk of the funding and Frederick County virtually none. At Clarksburg, the highway goes from six lanes to four in Frederick County, which produces an afternoon bottleneck and daily three-mile traffic backups.

In Montgomery County, I-270 is twelve lanes wide – more than needed even at peak traffic hours. The upgraded I-270 is now over-designed and over-built thanks to the Montgomery County political machine’s success at obtaining the lion’s share of the upgrade funds.

This, however, produced some major design problems: On the inbound side the merge with the Beltway can only accept eight lanes – two lanes on and off the Inner Loop and two lanes on and off the Outer Loop. What do you do with four excess lanes?

Simple: You essentially take them out of service by designating them as HOV lanes. This meets a “green” political need to encourage car-pooling and removes them from general use for more-effective flow metering on and off the Beltway. On the inbound side, the remaining three of the six lanes provide plenty of space to contain the traffic backed up by the bottleneck at the Beltway.

One would think that getting traffic off the Beltway in the afternoon would be a piece of cake. But first, you have to merge traffic coming from the south on the Spur with that from the east at the lane-divide. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly and traffic backs up onto the Inner Loop. Clearly, more lane space is needed at the bottom end of the outbound side of I-270. It could be obtained simply by eliminating the HOV lanes there. This would give traffic the space it needs to merge and smooth out downstream of the lane divide. Smoothing effects would propagate back upstream to the Beltway.

Eventually, you must begin herding traffic to the right to prepare for the bottleneck at Clarksburg. So, retain the HOV lane from, say, Falls Road on north to the MD121 exit as it is now.

Afternoon traffic flow on I-270 could be made considerably smoother simply by providing a third outbound lane in Frederick County and eliminating the lane drop. Judging from past study results, that is not a particularly favored option.

About four years ago MDOT commissioned a Multi-modal Study to review transportation options in the I-270 corridor. An option to add two lanes to the section south of I-70 was one of those presented. The option that seemed favored, however, would add four Express Toll Lanes in the space between the current four. ETL users would be given an unimpeded drive into Montgomery County – for a price, of course. Free-lane users would be stuck with the same old traffic problems.

The ETL idea would seem to be a way of offsetting the cost of I-270 operations. My estimates indicate, however, that the toll lanes would probably not be particularly lucrative and might not break even. ETL users would balk at the idea of using toll money to finance operations on the free lane side.

Some people in Frederick County I call Neo-Luddites oppose all economic and urban development. Keep Maryland green is their motto. These folks would probably be opposed to attempts to improve traffic flow on I-270 because it would make living in Frederick County more attractive and promote urban growth. Problem is: urban growth is here now. It is inevitable and inexorable and needs to be addressed.

These are political questions – not technical ones. Political questions seem unavoidable in any era, so naturally this blog has gravitated toward dealing with political issues and developing ideas to deal with them.

Many of the political problems we face as a nation arise in the U.S. Congress. Clearly, a change in the attitude of those in the Congress is needed. One way to accomplish this would be to impose term limits on those who serve there. Another would be to prohibit gerrymandering of voting districts. The practice has allowed Democrats to bias elections in their favor.

Constitutional amendments would be required in both instances but getting amendments of any kind past the Congress would be virtually impossible. Therefore, I believe that a grass-roots, Tea-Party Constitutional Convention should be called to consider this and other Amendments we, the people, need. The Constitution provides the mechanism to do this. All that would be needed would be the organization and drive to do it.

Another idea I like is statehood for the Sioux people living on reservations in the Dakotas. For over a hundred years they have dealt with the Federal Government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior. The modern Sioux have begun taking steps toward self-government through their own tribal councils. Why not extend this organization a little further to form what would be analogous to a state government and formally petition the Congress for admission to the Union as a state. If they want to continue the Indian Wars, fine, but let them take their fight directly to the floors of the U. S. Congress rather than fiddling around with bureaucrats. (If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.)

Social Security is another favorite subject of mine. The Social Security Administration has trust funds with trillions of dollars in them. The trust funds are currently “invested” with the U. S. Treasury, which pays a paltry 3% interest on the accounts (if that). Smart money managers would be able to safely invest that money in the free market and earn considerably more. The Social Security system could be independent and self-sustaining. For its part, the Congress could retain its role as a watch-dog to keep fund managers honest.

American voters have some fundamental choices to make. Our economy is sliding, almost inexorably, toward European-style socialism. Some are looking beyond that to a Marxist-style economy in which the government owns and controls everything. The Federal Government is enormous. When Mr. Obama demands more in taxation, it’s because he has upwards of a million mouths to feed. Is this what we want?

Frederick County voters likewise must decide: Do we want to promote economic development or do we want Frederick County to stop growing and slip into economic doldrums? What is best for the greater part of the population?

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