The Washington Post wants to widen Maryland highways with toll lanes
The Washington Post wants to widen Maryland highways with toll

A political cartoon on display at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum by Sammie Abbott.

Maryland Senate Bill 229 proposes to extend to the entire state a right which is currently granted only to the nine counties of the Eastern Shore—local veto power over the construction of new toll facilities. This legislation would clearly impact Governor Hogan’s proposal to widen the Beltway and I-270 with toll lanes, and merits discussion on the appropriate balance of state and local control. Unfortunately, the Washington Post Editorial Board attacked SB 229 as being against the will of the people in a piece that was short on facts and long on rhetoric.

Give the people what they want

The Post editorial asserts that the bill’s co-sponsors are ignoring their constituents because “it’s an inconvenient truth that most of the people they represent drive to work, hate traffic and favor road improvements to prevent even worse congestion.” As evidence, they later cite a poll from May of 2019 which found that 6 in 10 Montgomery County residents favored widening I-270 and the Beltway with toll lanes, while grudgingly acknowledging that the same poll found less than majority support in Prince George’s County. However, they neglect to mention that the Post repeated this poll in October of 2019, and found dwindling support for the proposal in Montgomery County (only 51% support) and overwhelming opposition in Prince George’s County (only 39% support, 59% opposed).

Current state law grants the nine counties of the Eastern Shore local veto power over new toll facilities. SB 229 would simply extend this same consideration to the rest of the state of Maryland. However, the Post Editorial Board asserts this is a “bogus argument” because “traffic volumes are light on the Eastern Shore.” That’s news the Eastern Shore might be delighted to hear, since the same day the Washington Post published this editorial, The Kent County News quoted Queen Anne County Commissioner Jim Moran saying “Queen Anne’s County is going to die by sheer smothering of this traffic.”

Commissioner Moran was discussing a state highway, not an interstate, however, so perhaps that’s not a fair comparison. The Post Editorial Board would likely say so, as they point out that “no toll roads have been proposed there [the Eastern Shore] in recent memory.” But on August, 29, 2019 — less than six months ago — a newspaper called The Washington Post published an article about Larry Hogan’s proposal to build a third toll bridge over the Chesapeake Bay, noting that “regardless of which alignment the state chooses, it will need local support. Under Maryland law, the state is not allowed to build a toll bridge or road in Eastern Shore counties unless the majority of those county governments agree to it.” Democracy dies in darkness!

White man’s road through black man’s home?

Putting the Eastern Shore aside, the Washington Post Editorial Board argues that those who oppose highway widening are NIMBYs and that had “localities been so empowered in the 1950s and ’60s, it’s unlikely the federal interstate highway system would exist today.” That’s true. The interstate highway system has left us quite a legacy of residential racial segregation and limited mass transit options to struggle with today. It’s also true that were it not for enlightened local resistance, DC and Baltimore would be criss-crossed by even more traffic-clogged interstates. The question is, why does the Washington Post Editorial Board think that’s a good thing?

Because this is the only way to “prevent much worse traffic”? Outside of the Washington Post Editorial Board, there is no broad consensus that this assertion is true. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments 2017 Long-Range Plan study showed that multiple alternative policies and investments, including Balanced Land Use, Demand Management, Bus Rapid Transit networks, and Metro all performed better than toll lanes as regional solutions to traffic congestion.

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Fix traffic through local control

The Post argues that Hogan “has championed major transit improvements” including the Purple Line. But what Hogan actually did was give Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties veto power over the Purple Line by threatening to cancel the project if the local governments did not pay a larger share of the cost — which they ultimately agreed to, because of broad local consensus that we need more investment in mass transit to secure the economic future of our region.

We all care about fixing traffic. It’s a false narrative that a majority of people in our region think that wider, tolled highways are the way to do it.

Find your Maryland State Senate and House representatives and let them know how you feel about SB 229 and the matching house bill, HB 292. The Senate hearing on the bill is Wednesday, January 29 at 2:45 PM.

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George’s County, MD.

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