For anyone who drives Interstate 270 between Frederick and Montgomery counties during weekday mornings and afternoons, it would be no surprise that the congested highway gets a failing grade of “F” under a state system that rates how well roads handle rush-hour traffic.
From Monday through Friday, some 110,200 vehicles travel down I-270 in that corridor, according to Frederick’s traffic engineer. Any fender bender, never-ending construction, a mere hint of precipitation and anyone even thinking of slowing down can turn that routinely stressful drive into another Commute From Hell.
Frederick Alderman Carol Krimm (D), who serves on the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, has made a modest proposal that, although it is no panacea for relieving traffic congestion on I-270, might help some and is worthy of consideration.
On July 18, Krimm suggested to her colleagues on the board that a committee be formed to study the idea of creating “bus-only shoulders” on I-270, starting with a 13-mile stretch from Frederick County to Clarksburg. Under the proposal — touted by the Transportation Research Board, a transportation think tank based in Washington, D.C. — when traffic starts to slow on I-270, buses could merge onto the bus shoulder, where the maximum safe speed limit would be 35 mph. When the traffic starts moving again, the buses would merge back into traffic.
Bus shoulders are not a new idea; they have been around for about 50 years, with the Minneapolis-St. Paul area pioneering the concept, according to the research board website. Closer to home, such bus shoulders are already in operation on four miles of U.S. 29 near Burtonsville, and for three miles of the Capital Beltway near Bethesda, as well as a stretch of the busy Dulles Toll Road in Virginia.
To their credit, the transportation board has agreed to look at the idea and come back in September with a proposal for the formation of a committee — although too many good ideas have disappeared down bureaucratic rabbit holes, weighted by endless feasibility studies, discussions, recommendations and fiddle-faddle. Hopefully, this idea won’t get stuck in its own traffic jam, and the state will eventually endorse the idea and find some money for it.
Krimm, with the support of Frederick County Commissioner C. Paul Smith (R), believes that the existence of the bus shoulders will get some people out of their cars onto buses, providing at least some minimal relief to traffic congestion, which will only worsen as more Montgomery people move to Frederick, perhaps attracted by more affordable housing, a lower tax bill and a more laid-back lifestyle.
“Once people see this and how it works, I’m convinced they’re going to use this to take them to Shady Grove. I think it is a positive move on the state level to look at this. If we just do those 13 miles, it would be huge. Even just a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the evening,” Krimm said.
Already, the Maryland Transit Authority contracts private buses that run from Hagerstown through Frederick to the Shady Grove Metro Station every work day. They are reportedly packed to capacity, as enduring the I-270 adventure is more pleasant to observe as a dozing passenger than a white-knuckled, steaming driver.
Clearly, installing such bus shoulders will take some work, if the idea proves feasible. As a city transportation planner points out, restriping of lanes may be necessary to create the needed 12-foot shoulder wide enough to accommodate a 8.5-foot-wide bus, which would cost some money, take some time — and undoubtedly back up traffic whenever the work is done in phases. The emphasis for the bus shoulders, of course, has to be on safety first — the last thing I-270 needs is another accident waiting to happen.
And even if built, such lanes won’t have any marked effect on general traffic flow and are by no means an ideal solution for the intrinsic problems of I-270, which is basically too narrow in spots to handle the rush-hour volume. But, as the Transportation Research Board puts it, bus shoulder lanes offer a quick, low-cost way to improve an existing right of way.