Critics of Maryland toll lanes cite ‘possible scientific fraud’ in traffic study


Critics of Maryland’s plan to widen Interstate 270 and part of the Capital Beltway with toll lanes cited possible flaws in the state’s analysis of whether the new lanes would alleviate traffic congestion, saying that the federal government should order an independent review.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday, transit advocates said the state has not explained why its latest computer traffic models produced “substantially different” results from an earlier study. The more recent findings, critics say, further support the state’s argument that widening the freeway would reduce backups. However, they said, many of the divergences seemed designed “to achieve a desired result.”

The traffic modeling was done as part of a federally required “Final Environmental Impact Statement” (FEIS) that the state released last month regarding Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s plan to reduce the traffic congestion. State officials said widening the freeway would also free up more space in regular lanes, but critics said it would attract additional traffic and exacerbate climate change.

In the letter, Ben Ross, president of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, said the Maryland Department of Transportation declined to explain the various findings or changes to its modeling. The “abnormalities”, wrote Ross, “create serious doubt as to whether the new traffic forecasts could have been generated by correcting previous errors and suggest possible falsification of the model outputs”.

Project spokesman Terry Owens said the traffic analysis was expert-reviewed and “follows accepted professional practices” approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

The latest regional traffic model used in the analysis “follows industry standards and has been thoroughly reviewed and validated,” Owens wrote. The MDOT, he said, “provided a large amount of high quality data in support of the SIEF”. State efforts, writes Owens, “far exceed the [federal] terms.”

In releasing the SIEF, MDOT said it had “modified analysis methodologies” and “conducted new analyses” based on the public feedback it received. The state did not elaborate.

Maryland’s toll lanes wouldn’t ease evening traffic without further improvements, study finds

Ross, a Bethesda resident who is retired from reviewing computer models for groundwater flow, said he found the issues “buried in a blizzard of numbers” in an appendix to the state’s SIEF released last month.

“The numbers just don’t look like what a computer model would produce,” Ross said in an interview.

In one example, Ross said, the state’s latest analysis found “significantly” improved drive times on the Beltway’s inner loop during the evening rush between Connecticut Avenue and Interstate 95 compared to its previous analysis. . However, he said, the calculations did not appear to take into account, as traffic models typically would, that more motorists would switch to the faster ring road from other roads to save time, which would increase traffic and slow speeds.

Maryland says it could limit environmental effects of widening Beltway, I-270

The accusations from critics come as the Federal Highway Administration considers the project SIEF for approval. Environmental approval is required to receive federal funding and is typically the target of federal lawsuits aimed at blocking major infrastructure projects. Questions about Maryland’s ridership projections for the Purple Line, which are more than four years behind schedule and $1.46 billion over budget, have been at the heart of a legal challenge that has delayed construction of the light rail line for almost a year.

MDOT needs federal environmental approval before it can secure a 50-year contract worth billions for a private consortium led by Australian toll road operator Transurban to build the lanes. Proponents of the project say time-limited Hogan (R) is eager to secure the contract before he leaves office in January, when a new governor could change the plan, slow it down or stop it.

Maryland governor’s race could decide fate of Beltway, I-270 toll lane plan

MDOT’s first contract on the project is also being challenged in court, where a losing bidder alleged the state wrongly awarded a “pre-development agreement” to the Transurban team to design the tracks and negotiate the contract. longer term to build and operate them.

Under MDOT’s plan, the state would add two toll lanes in each direction to the ring road between the Virginia side of a new, expanded American Legion bridge and the exit for Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. From there the lanes would extend to I-270 to Frederick, with the lower portion to I-370 being built first.

The regular tracks would be rebuilt and would remain free. One of the toll lanes on lower I-270 is said to be from a converted car pool lane.

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