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Friday, July 3, 2009

Imagine a Better Rail Link to Frederick

I have always hated Interstate 270. Always. It is a little confusing with the local and HOV lanes. It is much, much wider than it ought to be, creating huge bottlenecks in northern Montgomery County and at the Beltway. It is preposterously ugly, unbearably congested, and I feel particularly unsafe driving it. It is, in my humble opinion, very poorly planned. The last thing we need is more of it. But that is what they want to give us.

Lots of people travel this corridor in both directions every day. Frederick County has a population of a quarter million and growing. The Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick corridor has a population encroaching on five times that number, or roughly 20% of the Metropolitan area population. Downtown DC and Frederick are about 40 miles apart from each other. So this is a long corridor with a lot of people on it. A transportation solution must be found.

Obviously MARC's Brunswick Line is not getting it done. Its circuitous route through Brunswick adds several additional miles to the trip. Stops at small stations like Garrett Park, Washington Grove, Boyds, Barnesville, and Dickerson. Only 7000 people are riding this line daily (warning: pdf), and it is pushing its capacity. Even MARC's 2035 plan (pdf) only raise the capacity 26,000 per day (pdf). Meanwhile, between 75,000 and 108,000 vehicles clog I-270 every day. Imagine if we were talking about a solution that was faster than an expanded freeway or an improved MARC.

Widening I-270 is a colossal failure of an idea. Creating a bigger bottleneck at the Beltway for commuters from Frederick is just going to increase the number of cars that will sit on the parking lot that is 270 southbound in the morning. Here is my vision for a rail solution:

View Frederick Line in a larger map

If local transit (light rail, buses, etc.) ferried these commuters to a few stations, the trains could make fewer stops and travel at higher speeds. A system like this, I envision an average speed of 90 mph. Eight stops along the way, that's it. Stops at major transit centers and major suburbs along I-270.

There is nothing on the books for a direct high speed service between DC and Frederick. There are plenty of other transit priorities at this time. And I understand that some people have no choice but to drive to their jobs. I am one of them. But I live six miles from my job. If I am going to subsidize someone else's extra-long commute, I want to do it with a system that will work, not one that will only increase the number of cars that are wasting fuel while sitting idly on a congested freeway.


Daniel Kessler said...

Great article, David, yet again; I completely agree. I grew up in Potomac, and I've definitely come to see what you mean about I-270. I don't know what the county planners were thinking by recommending an additional lane in each direction. I think a big issue is Frederick and Hagerstown. I wish they could become more "sovereign" significant. In my mind, it would be nice to see the cities develop to a point where more residents could actually find work there, rather than commute to lower Montgomery County, D.C. or wherever else they go.

Daniel Kessler said...

...But then again, having Frederick and Hagerstown develop would probably create more sprawl and traffic up north, so I suppose that's not the solution. Forgive me for taking up this space merely to brainstorm ideas that are probably not going to work, anyway.

Daniel Kessler said...

This much is for certain: building 4,300 homes in a rural part of Allegany County will not help the traffic situation in northwestern Maryland. (See the Baltimore Sun article "Developer sues state agencies that blocked Allegany project" from July 2.)

Shame on Terrapin Run and Allegany County officials.

Dave Murphy said...

Beyond DC ran a great post pointing out the vices of the Terrapin Run project: