There’s been a bit of a blow-up in the Washington-area blogosphere in recent days over the decision by Montgomery County, Maryland planners to move forward with a bus rapid transit plan for the Corridor Cities Transitway, eliminating a light rail option. The line will run north of the Shady Grove Red Line Metro station to Germantown roughly along the I-270 corridor and cost $450 million to build, versus the $778 million a light rail system would have cost. Planners didn’t seem to mind simultaneously endorsing the $3.8 billion expansion of I-270 itself.
The decision to endorse a multi-billion dollar highway expansion even while rejecting a much less expensive light rail option is a huge slight to public transportation in Maryland. The planners who made this decision are indicating that encouraging auto-dependent sprawl is an acceptable use of transportation funds, but that providing high-quality transit alternatives should be left for another day — if ever. Greater Greater Washington and Beyond DC went into detail on these issues.
As Beyond DC points out rather nicely, there are other transit projects in Maryland more worthy of funding than the Corridor Cities route, including the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line, which will ring the northern suburbs of D.C. (and which in fact will receive some state roads money to be built). If this were purely a matter of choosing how to use a limited amount of funds for transit, then Corridor Cities certainly shouldn’t come first and a BRT line there might be a logical choice. There are also other significant unplanned corridors that probably deserve more funding than Corridor Cities, including an expansion of the Purple Line route east to National Harbor and west to Tysons Corner, as well as Baltimore’s Green Line.
But part of Maryland’s problem is its assumption that highway and transit funds are separate things; the federal government does give a lot more money to “highways” than it does to “transit.” As a result, the state appears to have billions to spend on highways but only hundreds of millions for transit. In fact, however, the majority of highway funds are transferable to public transportation project using the flexibility built into the transportation law. If Maryland was willing to do so, it could commit those funds dedicated to highway expansion to transit and pay for the increasing costs necessary for light rail rather than bus rapid transit. If a light rail Corridor Cities couldn’t qualify for New Starts grants, it could still be funded through highway formula funds.
Even so, what is the value of the Corridor Cities line? The project isn’t particularly well-designed, not hitting several of major town centers on its way through the Washington suburbs. More importantly, though, is the fact that constructing the line — whether light rail or BRT — would stimulate much of the same sprawl that an expansion of I-270 will induce. Shady Grove is already a thirty-minute trip from downtown D.C.; should we be encouraging people to live even further from the employment center, even if they use transit to commute? Is a transit-oriented lifestyle ever possible in a place dozens of miles from the regional core? Or does the fact that the cities affected by the Corridor Cities line are already partially built mean that “it’s too late,” and that we need to provide transit to areas that need it?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it’s undoubtedly true that Maryland’s choice to spend the majority of its transportation dollars on I-270 expansion (and on the ICC) will only exasperate existing congestion and threaten the environment. Choices like these will never produce the kind of dense, mixed-use, and transit-oriented society we should be envisioning for our future.
Image above: Corridor Cities route, from Maryland DOT