I-270 shoulder may be used to ease congestion

One solution to highway gridlock might be allowing people to drive on the shoulder.

Alderwoman Carol Krimm and Frederick city transportation planner Tim Davis recently proposed allowing drivers to use the I-270 shoulders during peak travel times to ease traffic. A similar Virginia Department of Transportation project is in the planning stages.

Speaking as a member of the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Krimm told members of the Frederick Area Committee for Transportation at a meeting this month that the proposal could be an alternative to more expensive projects.

The proposal: On the 13-mile stretch of I-270 between the City of Frederick and the point in Montgomery County near Clarksburg where the northbound high-occupancy vehicle lane ends, the northbound shoulder would open to traffic during peak afternoon rush-hour, and the southbound shoulder would similarly open in the morning.

“People who go to work (are) stuck in traffic, wasting their time, family time, and wasting money and gas,” Krimm said. “There’s just so much waste involved in traffic congestion.”

The proposal’s first roadblock is highway infrastructure, and whether I-270’s shoulders could be upgraded to become full-fledged part-time traffic lanes.

According to the Maryland State Highway Administration, this might be possible but would require discussion and feasibility analysis.

Several factors must be considered, SHA spokesman David Buck wrote in an email, including the existing shoulders’ width and ability to handle the load of a regular lane. Older pavement might not be suitable for traffic, he wrote, and could deteriorate rapidly if not reconstructed. Such renovations could cause additional issues with stormwater management.

The project could also force the state to widen some I-270 bridges that have narrow shoulders.

Keeping in mind the constant struggle for “green” transportation alternatives, Krimm and Davis want to keep the shoulder lane an option for Maryland Transit Administration commuter buses and carpooling.

During the Jan. 9 FACT meeting, Krimm and Davis received support from local transportation administrators, including TransIT Director Sherry Burford, who said Wednesday that the proposal could encourage people to use transit alternatives.

“This could be a low-cost alternative,” Burford said. “Something to investigate.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation is constructing a similar traffic system on I-66 through Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties, from Washington to U.S. 15 in Haymarket, Davis wrote in an email.

That 17-mile project includes new shoulder- and lane-control signs, speed displays, traffic incident detection and increased traffic camera coverage. An estimated cost of $32 million covers the state’s preliminary engineering, scheduled to begin this summer, and construction work set to start next fall. Federal sources contributed 90 percent of the project funding.

While a relatively new concept in the U.S., the technique has been used on highways around the country and in Europe.

Krimm and other advocates are floating the idea to gauge support and present alternatives. The proposal has not been brought directly to the Maryland Department of Transportation yet, though Krimm said she has mentioned it during meetings with the state. Investigation and other processes are needed before the project gets much traction, FACT Secretary Michael Proffitt said Wednesday.

“I think the FACT portion would be more trying to push the state highway or somebody else to do it,” he said. “We don’t do well at feasibility. We do well at calling our senators.”

Maryland Department of Transportation funding decisions are based on priority lists from local officials; a project of this scope would likely require support from city and county elected officials, according to SHA.

The project’s cost is impossible to predict now, Buck wrote, but it would qualify for federal funding.

Krimm sees it as a possible pilot program for Maryland. Nothing similar has been done in the state.

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