On Thursday night, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) hosted the third public meeting on its feasibility study for widening the Baltimore-Washington Parkway by one lane in both directions.
This study was mandated by an earmark in an appropriations bill by Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, who represents parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, and a small part of Baltimore city.
The FHA presentation was led by Lewis Grimm, the planning team leader, who explained that the parameters of the earmark only allowed a study of adding lanes to the parkway, and that the study did not therefore consider other possible means of improving transportation along the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
A key finding of the initial feasibility study was that even after adding lanes, the overall level of traffic congestion on the parkway was not expected to improve. The widened road would of course carry more traffic, but congestion levels were predicted to be about the same as today.
People often wonder why road expansions don’t seem to reduce congestion for long. In some cases, it is because bigger roads spur additional development.
However, there are also simpler explanations that boil down to basic economics. When roads are free (no tolls), the only “costs” for using them are gas and congestion costs (time delays). People make basic decisions about where to live relative to their jobs based on potential gas costs, transit costs and travel times.
When free roads are expanded, more people will use them. They will switch from other roads or from transit to use the new capacity. They may decide they can afford to live farther from their jobs, since there is additional road space.
After a few years, however, a new congestion equilibrium will be achieved, usually with about the same delays as before, as people balance the adjusted costs of gas, transit fees and time losses. Free transport resources are almost always used to capacity, at least in densely populated areas.
To their credit, the FHA feasibility study seemed to factor in these effects, and their presentation candidly listed many other citizen and stakeholder objections to a widened parkway.
It was a very different presentation than the meeting I attended last year on the Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT’s) proposed CSX truck facility in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. In that case, I felt like the MDOT presentations and studies were very one-sided, exaggerating the proposal’s supposed benefits while completely ignoring the offsetting costs or downsides.
In comparison, I appreciated the much more balanced and thoughtful approach that the FHA employed for the Parkway study. We’ll see for sure when the final report is released.