Spring is a good time to check in on one of the eternal verities of the Washington area: The fact that in a place where most people insist that traffic is one of the most devilish problems in their lives, there is nothing remotely like consensus over what to do about it.
The congestion conundrum is especially evident in Virginia these days, where the legislature has tied itself up in fruitless negotiations over how to pay for improvements to roads in the two or three most heavily trafficked parts of the state. (The rest of the state is so spread out and traffic-free that they generally don't give a damn about our woes in northern Virginia.)
But it's instructive during the Virginia tie-up to look across the Potomac to Maryland and the never-ending battle over the Inter-County Connector, the four-decade-old plan to build a highway across northern Montgomery and a bit of Prince George's to link I-270 with I-95 and create a second east-west alternative to local streets. In theory, this would relieve the Beltway of some traffic, while also freeing up those local streets.
But study after study have found that the ICC would actually provide next to no relief on the Beltway and precious little on local streets. Still, the state and Gov. Bobby Haircut, who has made getting the highway started his #1 goal for the Washington suburbs, insist that while other roads might not feel relief from the new highway, the ICC would nonetheless be a huge benefit because it would spare those other roads from a good chunk of the future traffic growth that would otherwise turn congestion into paralysis.
Now comes a new poll, conducted by the Mason-Dixon polling operation though commissioned by anti-ICC environmental and smart growth groups, that shows once again that the more people know about the limitations of the ICC, the less inclined they are to pay $3 billion to build a road that is but 18 miles long.
If you tell folks that the ICC won't really do much to relieve congestion--surprise suprise--55 percent of them will say that they think maybe it's not the best idea. But of course if you just say hey, do you want a new highway to ease traffic, most folks say, Sure, we have to do something.
So these polls are of limited value. But the fact that this debate has dragged on for 40 years should tell us something, and the fact that this highway may get going solely because a governor has put everything he has into getting this one big project off the ground on the eve of his reelection campaign is not exactly an encouraging reason to be sanguine about the situation. Never mind that plenty of other politicians have joined Ehrlich in this effort, including the county executive and gubernatorial challenge, Doug Duncan. The fact remains that the ICC has become the classic case of the wildly bloated government project that all pols of all parties should oppose on those grounds alone. When a simple road of just 18 miles is projected to cost more than $3 billion, something has gone terribly wrong, and in this case, it's what happens when you spend four decades studying something and reworking it to fit a thousand different little objections.
So the road has all manner of bridges and overpasses and other protections for every imaginable critter and plant and nearby residential section and so on, all of which add up to obscene price bloat. The project should be killed on those grounds alone.
The ICC is a monument to the idea that it is pretty much impossible to retrofit a densely populated area with a major road. Sufficient or easily expandable roads must be part of planning when communities are built. Montgomery County needs traffic relief, but as the anti-ICC forces argue, that must come in the form of simpler retrofits--the Purple Line light rail for Metro, expansion of some existing roads, and changes in patterns of development to focus more on the areas around Metro stations.
But the governor is intent on breaking ground for the ICC before this fall's election. And there isn't an opposing candidate on the scene who opposes the ICC. Another chapter in the sorry saga of dormant democracy.
By Marc Fisher |
April 10, 2006; 7:58 AM ET
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