Construction on a highway boondoggle in Virginia advances while Maryland considers alternate routes

Investing billions in highway expansion won't solve the region's traffic congestion problem. Will Maryland follow Virginia's lead or chart a new path forward?

Traffic congestion is a persistent problem in the Washington, D.C. area, and officials across the region have long wrestled with the best way to address it. For decades, the preferred solution has been to widen highways in order to accommodate more vehicles, but this approach has yielded poor results and may be falling out of favor.

On the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge, construction crews continue work to widen the Capital Beltway (I-495). The new toll lanes are expected to open in 2025. The original plan for the project was for Virginia and Maryland to construct equivalent highway capacities on both sides of the Potomac River and widen the connecting bridge by four lanes.

While Virginia continues forward with its share of this highway boondoggle, there are indications that the new administration in Maryland may adopt a different strategy to address traffic congestion.

The Capital Beltway project was recognized as one of the most wasteful highway expansions in the country in the 2018 Highway Boondoggles report by U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group. Maryland PIRG has been a longstanding opponent of the project, contending that it will fail to alleviating traffic and also waste taxpayer money, negatively affect public health and cause harm to the environment.

Transportation experts have acknowledged for decades that building and widening highways does not eliminate congestion. Rather, it has the opposite effect of attracting more cars to the road, resulting in greater levels of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2017, the former Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, introduced the multi-billion dollar proposal to widen I-495, as well as sections of I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. However, Hogan’s plan was scaled back in response to strong public opposition, and the new administration has indicated that they might take a new approach.

A spokesperson for Governor Wes Moore recently stated that the new governor of Maryland will evaluate potential solutions to traffic congestion with a focus on equity, sustainability, environmental protection, and environmental justice. At a press conference last month, Moore restated a campaign promise to pursue significant modifications to Governor Hogan’s proposal, saying that he had “real issues with the way [the plan] was laid out.”

A reassessment of this highway boondoggle is warranted. As initially proposed by Hogan, the project poses a threat to hundreds of acres of natural parkland and streams and requires the demolition of numerous homes.

This is an opportunity for Maryland to invest differently in the region’s transportation system. By prioritizing sustainable solutions, like public transportation, Maryland could deliver lasting relief from congestion while also improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is time to move away from the outdated and ineffective approach of expanding highways and embrace a more sustainable and equitable vision for transportation.

Laura Davis
Laura Davis

Former Transform Transportation, Advocate, PIRG


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