Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who for years opposed construction of the Intercounty Connector, has now come to embrace the highway as an alternative to building toll lanes on the Capital Beltway.
Elrich says no Beltway toll lanes would be needed if westbound drivers from Prince George’s County were to detour by using Interstate 95 north to access the westbound ICC and then connect with Interstate 270 south toward Virginia.
The suggestion was in a written statement issued last week after the state Board of Public Works voted to begin the process to find private contractors interested in building and operating toll lanes on I-270 and the Beltway as part of a traffic congestion relief plan from Gov. Larry Hogan.
According to Google Maps, a westbound trip from Greenbelt to Gaithersburg would be 25.8 miles using the Beltway. The same trip using the ICC would be four miles longer. A sampling of rush hour travel times Friday evening and Monday morning found that using the ICC route saved eight minutes Friday and 25 minutes Monday (there was a Monday morning collision on the Beltway Outer Loop that slowed traffic).
Maureen McNulty, a spokeswoman with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, wrote in an email that this alternative route was developed between Elrich, the County Council and the planning department.
“This proposal will provide reliable travel times for the travel patterns that would otherwise use the beltway, without requiring widening of I-495 between I-95 and I-270 and avoiding the property takings, park, and environmental impacts along this highly constrained segment of highway,” she wrote.
The plan, she wrote, was drawn from a number of pre-existing plans such as the MARC commuter train’s growth and investment plan and planning documents used for the Corridor Cities Transitway — a planned 15-mile bus rapid transit line linking the Shady Grove Metro station with Clarksburg.
IN an interview, Elrich said 20% of southbound drivers on I-95 use the Beltway to go west into Virginia. Using the ICC to I-270, as an alternative, would help alleviate bottlenecks.
An average of 52,000 vehicles travel on the ICC every day, compared with more than 200,000 on the Beltway, according to 2016 data from the State Highway Administration.
“You get a significant improvement without spending any money. He’s [Hogan] only looking in terms of how to increase capacity. He’s already got a tool [in the ICC], and if it’s used right, it would actually reduce the capacity that’s on the Beltway today,” he said.
Asked whether drivers would be willing to pay the ICC toll as an alternative, Elrich said it would ultimately be less than paying any toll that would be placed on the Beltway.
“Hogan’s whole theory was that he was going to put managed lanes on the Beltway and they were going to pay. So if your theory is the drivers will pay, they should be willing to use the ICC, which is going to be cheaper than this thing. Because this project is going to be far more expensive than the ICC,” he said.
The ICC is a toll road linking I-370 near Gaithersburg with I-95 near Laurel. For decades, residents opposed its construction.
Council member Tom Hucker said he agrees that the ICC has been ‘underutilized” since it opened eight years ago. He said he has heard anecdotally that drivers can save 10 minutes by using the ICC.
“It was widely promised that the ICC would take cars off the Beltway, but it hasn’t fulfilled that promise,” he said.
Hucker, whose district includes the eastern part of the county, which includes the Beltway and the ICC, said instead of adding toll lanes to the Beltway, it would make more sense to convert the left shoulder into an extra lane. Additionally, he suggested putting in “ramp meters,” or stoplights at the end of on-ramps that indicate when it is safe for drivers to merge onto the interstate.
“In some places the shoulder is a little bit too narrow. But fixing those small problems would add 25% more capacity to the Beltway,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org