Two toll opportunities close to home in Frederick Maryland - I-270 lanes & bypass
By Peter Samuel
A prominent local state politician Galen Clagett (Dem, Frederick) said at a lunch here recently that continued inaction on I-270 is "quite unacceptable." Congestion is "killing us," he said. We need extra lanes now, he said, not in fifteen years as promised by the state highway administration. Since the state doesn't have the money to do anything beyond studying the problem year after year, we need to go to the private sector, Clagett said. He has already talked to Bechtel who have large eastern US offices here - overlooking the frequently stalled I-270 traffic over a short stretch of lawn.
The MD355 interchange used by hundreds of Bechtel employees and hordes of others to access a local commercial area on the southside of old Frederick is a tight 1950s design.
Bechtel are keen to help, Clagett says.
But the state needs a process within which Bechtel and others can make proposals, have them evaluated, and through which toll concession contracts can be negotiated.
Clagett, a member of the state House of Delegates appropriations committee and the legislative policy committee, is meeting soon with John Porcari the state secretary of transportation leading a local delegation to press the case for express toll lanes to be built with a public-private partnership in order to get some extra pavement between here and Montgomery County.
State lawyers say that the existing tolling powers of the Maryland (Toll) Transportation Authority which operates six toll crossings and the I-95 Kennedy Highway tolls can be used for concessions or PPPs. However the state has to draft regulations spelling out procedures. Clagett wants action on that in weeks.
BACKGROUND: Frederick, county population 230k, is centered 67km (42 miles) northwest of the White House as the crow flies. I-270 is the expressway between Frederick and the Washington DC metro area.
42% of Frederick's workforce works outside the county, the largest proportion down I-270 in Montgomery County, with lesser proportions having jobs in DC, northern Virginia, also accessed by I-270 and Howard County via I-70. Frederick County's population is forecast to grow to 330k by 2030.
It is also an historic crossroads, originally of pikes going north into Pennsylvania and the National Pike coming west from Baltimore and finding passes through the Catoctin Mountain range to the immediate west of Frederick toward Ohio.
The local telephone directory's high percentage of German names and many solid stone houses reflect the early settlement south out of Pennsylvania by the "Dutch," a corruption of Deutsch. Turnpikes ran from central Pennsylvania through Frederick to the port of Georgetown.
US15/I-270 now follow the north-south route between DC and central Pennsylvania and I-70 follows the old National Pike, each diverging just a mile or so to skirt west and south around the historic part of Frederick.
They were laid out in the 1950s.
Since then the population has increased more than four-fold, and now these major highways meet in what is now the center of a larger built area. A good portion of their capacity serves local traffic moving within Frederick.
I-270 and its continuation US15 have ten interchanges through Frederick in about ten miles between Urbana south of Frederick and the northern outskirts. That's the same segment where a three interchange Frederick East bypass or relief road is being proposed (see FEER on map).
In addition to local traffic there is steadily increasing through traffic through Frederick. Many commuters into the Washington-Baltimore metro region now come (going clockwise) from Berkeley Co WV (Martinsburg & Charlestown), Washington Co MD (Hagerstown) and from Adams Co PA (Gettysburg). They come through Frederick on US340, I-70 and US15 respectively.
The I-70/270 interchange also takes virtually all the longdistance traffic of the Washington Baltimore region and the midwest because those highways are the most direct route to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
I-270 widened in Montgomery County
I-270 was widened between the Beltway and Gaithersburg in the late 1980s from six lanes to twelve - 2x4 main lanes plus 2x2 collector distributor or local lanes.
That 12 lane segment carries up to 250k veh/day reasonably smoothly.
Moving north it drops lanes progressively to 2x3 lanes to Clarksburg, where the afternoon backups get serious.
The final 22km (13.5mi) to Frederick is the the same 2x2 lanes that opened in 1958.
For history see http://www.roadstothefuture.com/I270_I370.html
The northern four lane section of I-270 presently averages 91k/day or 23k veh/lane/day, the highest per lane volume along the highway. Together with old interchanges with short merge/diverge lanes this makes it clearly the most congested segment.
Individual segments show even higher daily traffic counts (all numbers from MDOT presentation at TJHigh June 16 2007) on 2x2 lanes through Frederick itself:
- 108k I-270 near I-70
- 103k US15 near US40
- 90k on US15 right through Frederick
- 86k I-70 between I-270 and US340
- 74k on I-70 west of Jefferson Pike
- 79k on I-70 east of MD355
Paralysis by analysis
State efforts to improve I-270/US15 are a classic of paralysis by analysis. The corridor has been the subject of continuous NEPA process plan, study, alternatives evaluation and public consultation since 1994.
A thoroughly botched draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) was actually published in 2003. Under the influence of the do-nothing/smartgrowth crowd this DEIS tried to make the case that after spending $2 billion-plus we'd be all be worse off, attempting to elicit a "Why bother" response from officials and the public.
(see my detailed critique of the 2003 270DEIS for Maryland Public Policy Institute)
No-more-road ideology waning
2002-03 was when smartgrowth/nomoreroad ideology was peaking in influence in Maryland. That baneful influence has waned. The 2x3 lane Inter County Connector tollroad is under construction off I-270 in Montgomery County, express toll lanes are under construction on I-95 north of Baltimore, and toll lanes are being studied elsewhere.
In Frederick rail enthusiasts distracted attention from I-270 in the 1990s and early 2000s with the bogus claim that extension of MARC commuter rail to Frederick would divert traffic and relieve congestion on I-270.
$80m later that opened in early 2002. It carries about 600 trips/day (1,600 were forecast) vs I-270's 108,000 (90k x 1.2/car). The MARC accounts for a few months growth on I-270. Frederick has its commuter rail now but of course congestion on I-270 is quite unaffected. The only transit that makes any sense is express buses and vans traveling in managed free flow lanes on I-270.
The 91k/day on the northern portion of I-270 is forecast to grow to 126k/day by 2030 under ambitious assumptions of transit growth and conservative traffic numbers.
The botched 2003 DEIS was quietly buried. A new one including the obviously necessary toll managed lanes is due to be completed within the next year.
A preliminary outline at a recent county organized "transportation summit" suggested the improvements to I-270/US15 through Frederick will cost $3,045m.
Typical state planning!
Lay cost and funding aside and let engineers and environmentalists duke it out and design everything needed for 2030. The resulting $3b+ is totally unfundable, and unnecessary now.
What Clagett and others in Frederick are now saying is: break this 2030 scheme into stages that are fundable, so we get started on laying some pavement. The stages can fit into the multi-billion scheme and be permitted within that.
Ideally you'd build 2x2 express toll lanes (ETLs) to Frederick along with the 2x2 free lanes, but that will require widening out. Single ETLs can be built widening into the existing grass median in northern I-270, requiring little property acquisition, and little bridge work.
We have other pressing needs beyond the 3rd laning of I-70 through Frederick:
- 3rd laning I-70 west, perhaps for trucks-only given heavy truck traffic Frederick to Hagerstown
- extra auxiliary lanes (continuous entry lane to exit lane connections) on US15
- inside 3rd travel lane for US15
- grade separations of US15 immediately north of Frederick in place of dangerous at-grade crossings
Frederick East Relief Road
US15 through Frederick is ultimately limited because of its essential role as a local spinal route and because of the many interchanges.
There's room for that third travel lane in the median of US15 and safety would be improved by building auxiliary lanes on the outside linking on and off ramps with a continuous weaving lane for entering and exiting traffic, but beyond that widening is impractical. US15 within the center of Frederick needs to be accepted eventually as a local distributor, not an interstate route.
Within about ten years we need a Frederick Relief Road to the east of the city. That would diverge from I-270 at Urbana and join US15 at Biggs Ford Rd north of Frederick to carry through-traffic.
With only three interchanges (at I-70, Frederick's Gas House Pike, and MD26) versus ten interchanges in the parallel stretch of I-270/US15 and signed for a higher speed limit (say 75mph vs 55mph) this FERR could attract the bulk of through traffic US15N to I-270 even as a toll road
The FERR would:
- relieve traffic congestion inside Frederick
- take traffic away from some of the congested Frederick interchanges by providing a new route for US15 and I-270 traffic to I-70 East (to Howard County and Baltimore)
- provide improved access on the east side of Frederick including the city airport and the Walkersville area northeast of Frederick
FERR has a champion in city alderman Paul Smith - though he hopes federal and state grants might fund it.
A corridor for the FERR was recently reserved in the city landuse plans. But the ends of the FERR are beyond the city line and located in Frederick County.
The urgent issue is locating the ends and reserving the corridor for them in the county.
Charles Jenkins a county commissioner favors action.
The state hasn't so far even acknowledged the need for studies of the FERR.