Maryland's ICC tollroad off to strong start - traffic well over forecast (PLUS EDITORIALIZING)

February 24, 2011
By Peter Samuel

Maryland's new Inter County Connector (ICC) tollroad got off to a strong start today as the first 8.8 mile segment I-270 in Shady Grove to MD97 Georgia Avenue/MD28 opened. Barriers were removed at 1:15am Feb 23 westbound. The eastbound lanes opened about 3:20am.

Traffic in the first peak 6am to 9am was 5,618, split about equally eastbound and westbound. If you consider capacity of the road 1800 vehicles/lane/hour or 32,400 in the three-hour peak that's a modest 17% of capacity. 9am through 1pm traffic kept around 2,000 vehicles per hour about 20% of capacity. Then in the afternoon traffic volumes built steadily, especially eastbound to 5389 for the peak 4pm to 7pm for 33% of capacity. First day's heaviest hour of traffic per direction was 1907 5pm to 6pm eastbound, 35% of capacity.

By 7pm the traffic count for the day was 30,319 and likely to be around 39,000 by midnight.

That compares with modeled forecasts that this segment of the road I-270 to MD97 would "build gradually to 21,500/day."

Just one day, sure

Of course one day is just one day and the first day may have attracted an unusually large number of sightseers who won't stay with the road. And also it's toll-free for a couple of weeks, deliberately to encourage motorists in the area to try it out.

But we've got the feeling this is going to be a very popular and successful road and the forecasters numbers may be too low. It's a beautiful modern highway. The existing surface routes make the 8.8 miles journey anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes of busy, unpredictable, wearing, stressful and tedious stop-&-go with a bunch of traffic signals and turns. The nearly 9 miles of the ICC by contrast are a pleasurable relaxing cruise of about 9 minutes duration, that time likely to be predictable and reliable.  If you are traveling the full distance it's just no contest which road you're better being on.

Benefits of a similar kind will be seen when the second 10 mile segment is opened in a year's time and the highway goes all the way between the I-270 In Gaithersburg/Shady Grove slightly northwest of Washington DC and I-95 in Laurel northeast of DC.

Drivers of the whole length of the ICC will save a longer U-shaped trip on some of the most congested segments of I-270, the northern 'roller-coaster' section of the Beltway (I-495), and I-95. While the modeling shows the bulk of the ICC traffic should be taken off local surface streets in the direct corridor, we'd guess it will also get decent traffic volume that otherwise does the U to the Beltway.  

In a break in winter storms, earlier this week between days of high winds and an ice and snow storm there was a 'ribbon cutting' and speechmaking ceremony to open this beautiful new highway that is going to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Many of those who showed up wanted to celebrate the success in a decades-long struggle against naysayers, the nihilist greens, the NIMBYs and the road-haters here in Maryland who bitterly and persistently opposed this road.

What makes the victory so sweet is that it was achieved in the heart of limousine-liberal country, thick with Priuses and recycling containers, biker-hikers, save the whale, and ban-the-incinerator signs, all the sloganistic paraphernalia of that very self-righteous crowd who just 'know' that we shouldn't be building new roads.

I can remember Michael Replogle of the Environmental Defense Fund about ten years ago ridiculing with great scorn the notion this road could ever be built. Sweet indeed is the thought that this smooth-talking but zealous obstructionist was this week proved flat wrong.  

Good too is the knowledge that users will pay for this road via through the levying of tolls at normal highway speeds in a normal section of highway applying the engineering genius of orchestrated electromagnetic sensing from the pavement, RF readers overhead, lasers separators, and rear and frontal camera/light combinations - what we call all-electronic tolling.  And that toll rates can be varied by time of day to help manage traffic volumes and prevent the overloads that cause congestion.

The ICC represents a new paradigm for roads and a new era in how they are funded and managed.

Next?

Now they need to start the planning process and permitting to allow the ICC to be extended both southwest across the Potomac into Virginia to hook up with VA28 and Dulles Airport and southeast to US50, the highway to the Bay Bridge. No one is actively planning that, but it's a logical way to make more use and extend the benefits of the ICC, and to provide more choices in other major transportation corridors underserved with highway connections. The ICC extension west would provide redundancy for the American Legion Bridge on the Beltway and an improved route for many between the Dulles Airport area and the northern Maryland suburbs. And the extension east would improve connections to the eastern shore, also providing relief to the Beltway and highways leading to it.

None of the officials this week at the ICC opening were talking about any extensions.  About 600 people showed up to celebrate, and about 15 to protest. One of the protesters carried a sign that is a classic: "The Road to Hell is Paved."  It's of course a take on Samuel Johnson's famously skeptical line on good intentions.

Trouble is these kinds of people rarely concede the good intentions of those they disagree with. They're more likely to say we're serving 'monied interests' or 'developers' than to concede that as supporters of the road we simply believe it will serve people well by helping them get themselves, and their families and their stuff around more efficiently and more safely and with less hassle - that the new road will enlarge their lives by making more places and people accessible.

Governor Martin O'Malley alluded very gingerly to the triumph of overcoming the obstructionists by quoting a Roman philosopher: "It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness."

LaHood's sensible comments

We don't often praise US secretary of transportation Ray LaHood - for us he will never live down the comment that the job of government is to "coerce people out of their cars" - was gracious and sensible in his speech at the ICC ceremony, and in his 'fastlane' blog where he summed it up:

"Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the ribbon-cutting for the first segment of MD200, better known in Maryland as the Intercounty Connector.   Now, the sky may have been cloudy, but - because the state was willing to dream big and build big - the future of transportation in Maryland sure looked bright.

"And that's because this new stretch of highway truly is a connector.  It will connect employees with jobs and students with schools.  It will connect Montgomery County with Prince George's County and with the city of Baltimore.  It will connect I-270 and I-370 with I-95.

"But most importantly, it will connect people.  The ICC will allow commuters to save nearly 20 minutes each way, giving them back hours of time with their loved ones.  And for every commuter who chooses the ICC there will be one less vehicle on another road, thereby helping ease congestion for commuters throughout the region.

"The ICC was also built with the best environmental stewardship in mind.  This was obvious to me as Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and I rode to the ceremony in an all-electric Chevy Volt.  The road features underpasses instead of overpasses to cut down on noise, and it is landscaped more like a parkway than a highway.

"You see, even as we develop other ways of getting around, 21st century transportation projects will continue to feature roadways prominently.  So we owe it to the next generation of Americans to build those roadways as safely and sensibly as possible."

A number of people reminisced. Alan Pisarski a local consultant emailed colleagues that he remembered when he first worked for the Metro Washington Council of Governments over 40 years ago the ICC was planned. He says the delays have caused immense costs in wasted time, wasted energy, and lost lives and people injured unnecessarily. It's sad to think what has been lost all these years without-the-ICC.

They overcame

Credit for overcoming the obstructors of the road includes these people:

- Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich (2003-2007) who made it a priority and under whom it got permitted

- Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (1994-2006) who always supported it against many members of his party (Dem)

- Pres George W Bush and his leading officials who worked to remove federal obstacles

- Maryland State Highway director of planning, now state highway administrator Neil Pedersen, a relentless worker for the project

- Alan Straus who managed the environmental impact and planning process at the state highway administration in the 1990s and Wesley Mitchell who took over from him this decade

- construction project manager Melinda Peters who is actually delivering the project and gets accolades of praise for keeping the construction on budget, and on time

But why is that the obstructionists are so wrong in their slogan that we need transit not roads. First a road like the ICC does provide for transit - excellent, affordable transit in the form of buses. Part of the cost of the ICC project involves new buses and bus routes and park-&-rides specially designed to take advantage of the road.

But many of the opponents want rail, which they see as the only 'real transit.'

Why road?

Here's the answer:

Rubber tires on roads provide vastly more efficient and useful transportation service because of the pervasiveness of roads and the variety and ubiquity of road vehicles. Everyone is connected to the road network via the hierarchy of expressways, arterials, distributors, local streets, driveways, parking lots and loading docks.

The road network extends into every property in the country - allowing door to door travel and door to door deliveries. Moreover the road network supports a rich array of different vehicles specialized and tailormade to user needs, most of them privately financed and operated.

Rail can't possibly compete for most trips made because it lacks the same depth of small feeders and connections at each end of most trips.  How many properties in America have a rail siding as compared to having a driveway or parking spot or loading dock? And rail can't cater to the variety of privately financed and operated vehicles that roads cater to.

Roadways provide an invaluable service too that rail cannot generally compete with in providing space and access for utilities - water, sewer, gas, telecom, cable TV and electricity. Roadways at the lower level of their hierarchy anyway, support parking, pedestrians, bicycles. Emergency services - ambulance, fire, police - are totally dependent on roads and road vehicles.

Rubber tire on pavement is so much more adaptable and more efficient and provides so much better end-to-end service it has to be used if we are serious about improving people's lives.

The ICC demonstrates that.

TOLLROADSnews 2011-02-23


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