New report spotlights M-83 expansion among national U.S. highway boondoggles

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The $1.3 billion project would have devastating effects on local neighborhoods and green spaces

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Maryland PIRG Foundation and Frontier Group released a new report on Thursday that exposes highway boondoggles across the country that, if completed, would not only waste billions of dollars but also worsen climate change, harm air quality and deepen our country’s harmful dependency on cars.  Among the wasteful projects, the report included Maryland’s proposed M-83 highway in Montgomery County – also known as the Midcounty Highway Extended – a $1.3 billion highway boondoggle that would damage local communities and the environment. 

“This highway expansion is a lose-lose-lose for taxpayers, our communities and the environment,” said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG Foundation. “It’s been 50 years since Montgomery County first proposed this plan, and we have 50 years of research, experience and technology to tell us that it will not work. With the climate crisis becoming increasingly severe, we must avoid highway boondoggles that will only worsen pollution and increase global warming emissions. Instead, we should choose to invest in a transportation system that would actually improve our environment and make our lives in Maryland better.”

Last November, President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to repair the nation’s crumbling transportation system and invest in a modern day transportation network.  The infrastructure law gives states flexibility to decide how best to spend much of the funds. Many states are choosing to press on with billions of dollars worth of highway expansion projects like M-83 — even though highway expansion does not solve congestion and the money would be better spent on fixing massive repair and maintenance backlogs.

“America can’t afford to squander our historic investment in infrastructure on  boondoggle projects,” said James Horrox, policy analyst at Frontier Group and lead author of the report. “And yet, across the country, wasteful and damaging highway expansion projects are often first in line for public dollars.”

Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s (MCDOT) plans for M-83 were officially shelved in 2017, and in summer 2022, the National Capital Region Transportation Board removed the highway from their long-range transportation plan. But the proposed highway remains in Montgomery County’s Master Plan. If completed, the report found that M-83 would have devastating consequences for local communities and natural resources, including wetlands and waterways, an agricultural reserve and neighborhoods in Montgomery Village and Germantown. 

The fight to permanently cancel this absurd highway project is not over,” noted Margaret Schoap, organizer of the TAME  (Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended) Coalition in Montgomery County. “TAME Coalition calls on the Montgomery County Council to act now on its climate and social justice commitments – by removing M-83 Highway from each and every master plan in which it appears.”

The report also contains an update on a previous Maryland project that made the 2018 Highway Boondoggles list: the Interstate-270 widening northwest of Washington, D.C. The project, originally packaged along with the widening of Interstate 495 as the “Traffic Relief Plan,” has seen significant opposition, including legal challenges, that have resulted in delays and downsizing of the proposal’s scope. The state still plans to move forward, however, having completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in June 2022. 

“I am pleased that this report recognizes that M-83 is not the solution to congestion problems; I have long opposed M-83 as ineffective, wasteful and environmentally destructive and I was pleased to lead on removing M-83 from the consolidated transportation plan,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. “Neither M-83 nor the current plan for I-270/495 effectively address congestion and those plans continue to rely on single occupancy vehicles despite the urgency of addressing climate change. We need real solutions, which is why I support reversible lanes along I-270 within the existing footprint and why I am moving the county forward with Bus Rapid Transit on Route 355 all the way from Bethesda into Clarksburg to provide a real transit alternative. I look forward to supporting efforts by the County Council to remove M-83 from the County’s Master Plan of Highways and Transitways.”

The report recommends that Maryland remove M-83 from its Master Plan, cancel the I-270 widening and instead use federal funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law to clear their highway repair backlogs and invest in public transportation.

“As our report makes clear, it’s time to end our state’s habit of costly, polluting and ineffective highway expansion projects,” said Scarr. “Rather than expensive highway boondoggles, we need  to start using our money more wisely by investing in public transit, walking and biking instead.”

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Through research, public education and outreach, Maryland PIRG Foundation serves as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.

The fight to permanently cancel this absurd highway project is not over. Margaret Schoap
Organizer of the TAME  (Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended) Coalition in Montgomery County
Highway interchange
TierneyMJ | Shutterstock.com
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