What more can be said about I-270? David Alpert is calling it Gaithersbungle: the Montgomery County Planning Department has decided to spend $3.8 billion widening the highway to a truly massive 12 lanes. Then they’re spending $450 million on a BRT system that seems almost intentionally planned to not spur TOD. Compare those two numbers before realizing that this will be BRT to save money off the $778 million light rail price tag.
First off, it’s sort of a cruel joke to call this BRT at all. This is a commuter bus. That’s not a bad thing—it’s better than commuter cars—but when the planners explicitly tout the route flexibility buses offer, that’s not BRT. Projects like this are a lot of the reason that skepticism of the whole BRT idea is justified: it’s an easy idea to water down.
The interesting question, though, is why this happened. Why is there a simultaneous decision to increase transit, though not great transit, and to greatly expand the highway? What is the set of political pressures that tells the county that it can’t widen the highway without at least making a nod towards transit?
It seems like a failure of pro-smart growth politics. There’s the big issue, which is just capacity. BeyondDC pointed out this old Gazette article outlining the complete silence over the Corridor Cities Transitway as compared to the Purple Line. We can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
But the more interesting problem here is that I think it shows that smart growth has won the public battle for the narrative without having won in the closed-door arenas where decisions get made. The combination of the kiss-and-ride bus transit system with highway expansion is a perfect recipe for further sprawl. And yet officials are quick to note that this is a transit project. The growth machine gets exactly what it wants, but it no longer can argue for the car as a sign of American Progress or simply dismiss transit advocates as crazy reds or greens. It has to pay lip service to smart growth, but no more. After all, the growth machine still has the money, the lobbying power and the connections to officials.
Being right gets you public opinion, or elite consensus. It doesn’t get you a win, though, and smart growth advocates are going to have to get a lot stronger politically if we want more than nods in the direction of transit.