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Posted at 11:40 AM ET, 05/14/2010

Outer Beltway: Not that again

By David Alpert

Last week, All Opinions Are Local and The Post's Sunday Local Opinions page posted a letter from Richard Lampl pushing to extend the intercounty connector across the Potomac, presumably to Leesburg and Dulles.

I'd also like a private helicopter service paid for by the government to take me everywhere I need to go. Maryland and Virginia could institute free helicopters for every resident. How about it? That's just slightly more insane than building this kind of Outer Beltway, which has unfortunately reared its ridiculous head for decades.

Adding more and more Beltways makes sense only if you buy into the 1950s vision of covering every available square inch of farmland with sprawl. So far, we've been blessed to keep much of outer Montgomery County, and much of Loudoun County, rural.

During the heyday of building freeways in the mid-20th century, planners discovered something counterintuitive: The more you build, the more traffic you get. That's because developers build more housing on more distant farms when there are freeways going to those farms. If Maryland and Virginia built another Beltway, it wouldn't relieve traffic congestion. Instead, lots of new houses would go up in Frederick County for people who would drive through Montgomery to jobs in Virginia. That will make traffic worse, not better, for current residents.

Plus, freeways are really, really expensive. It's a myth that gas taxes pay for them. Far from it. The current ICC was supposed to pay for itself in tolls. Instead, building the freeway has made it impossible for Maryland to compensate for sharp declines in its transportation trust fund, forcing it to stop repairing roads and bridges everywhere. People who won't ever drive on the ICC are paying more in tolls elsewhere to pay for it.

Worst of all, residents experienced severe sticker shock when they discovered that it could cost more than $6 to drive the length of the freeway. Even at those toll levels, the ICC still won't pay for itself. That's how expensive freeways are.

There are lots of locations ripe for job growth inside and near the Beltway, from Tysons to Springfield to eastern Montgomery to Prince George's. A recent Brookings report showed that more people than ever want to live in walkable urban places, not 50 miles from the region's core.

Why would Maryland and Virginia repeat this mistake again and spend billions that are needed for local roads and transit, just to transform the region in a way that is the opposite of what we need? The region's transportation financing should focus on improving transit and local roadways in our existing, more densely populated areas, not wasting it all to foster unsustainable sprawl.

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

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By David Alpert  | May 14, 2010; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Maryland, Virginia, transportation  | Tags:  Prince George's County Maryland  
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Luddite demagoguery.

Posted by: mkrauss323 | May 15, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse

The horses are already out of the barn, my friend, stop trying to close the door.

The sprawl happened years ago. An outer beltway would help relieve the nation's 2nd worst traffic happening every day on 495, which currently handles traffic from the sprawl you are protesting 20 years too late.

That said, an outer beltway should only be built in concert with a purple line around the current beltway (put a wheel around the spokes!), as well as a massive expansion of the Metro system into the existing sprawl.

Posted by: OpenSource | May 18, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Farms? The region needs transportation solutions, not farms. If David wasted his day away like many of us do - creeping along the Dulles Toll Road, 270, 66, 95 or the Beltway in gridlocked traffic as our lives pass us by - he would be questioning why our road system is so deficient. It's nice that some people's lives grant them the convenience to live by their jobs or dependable transportation alternatives. Unfortunately, the majority of us are struggling to get where we need to be and we need better solutions, not more farms.

Posted by: YodaSyrup | May 19, 2010 7:22 AM | Report abuse

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