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Highway Boondoggles, Part I: Maryland’s Misguided Highway Extension

Seneca Creek – one of the unspoiled natural areas threatened by the proposed M-83 highway.
Photo: G. Edward Johnson

This article is a part of our annual Highway Boondoggles series, in partnership with U.S. PIRG. This series will explore some of the worst planned highway projects across the country, and explore why they deserve to be cancelled — and why U.S. transportation policy must be reformed to discourage similar initiatives in the future.

Check out the other boondoggles that made this year's list, or view the full report here 

Montgomery County M-83 highway, Maryland
Cost: $1.3 billion

M-83, otherwise known as the Midcounty Highway Extended, has been included in Montgomery County’s Master Plan of Highways since the 1960s. A limited access, four- to six-lane highway, the road would extend a little under nine miles from Ridge Road in Clarksburg to Redland Road in Derwood, running parallel to Route 355, as well as a northern extension planned in Clarksburg under the name Snowden Farm Parkway. A three-mile segment of M-83 between Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Village Avenue has already been built, but fierce local opposition dating back almost 50 years has stalled construction on the remainder of the project.

Plans for M-83 were officially suspended as of November 2017, however, the project is still in Montgomery County’s Master Plan of Highways and Transitways. As long as that remains the case, it can still be built at any time, and local groups’ decades-old battle against the highway continues.

Montgomery County has historically maintained that this new highway is necessary in order to “relieve projected congestion on roadway facilities between Clarksburg and Gaithersburg, east of I-270, [and] to provide a north-south corridor which improves the safety and efficiency of short and moderate length trips in the […] area,” as well as to “enhance the efficiency of the roadway network and improve the connections between economic centers” and accommodate future growth in the region. In its 2007 “Purpose & Need” study for the M-83 corridor, the County notes that “this region of the county is among the fastest growing for both employment and housing, with a sizable portion of the county’s remaining residential growth planned within the study area.”

Montgomery County Department of Transportation originally evaluated 11 alternatives for the corridor, and in 2015 selected a new, 5.7-mile limited-access highway from Snowden Farm Parkway to Montgomery Village Avenue (Alternative 9A) as its preferred alternative. Dismissing less costly options and failing to look at transit alternatives at all, the report was lambasted by M-83 opponents and quickly repudiated by MCDOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh, who noted that the assessment had been carried out before the Route 355 Bus Rapid Transit system was in the master plan, and it had therefore not been considered as one of the alternatives.

Local advocacy group Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended (also known as the TAME Coalition) further claimed that in deciding upon its preferred alternative, the state DOT had failed to respond adequately to input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had, in 2013 feedback on the draft report, outlined a number of concerns about the study, including its non-transparent screening criteria for assessing the alternatives and failure to study combinations of multiple alternatives to ascertain what the combined impact would be. In short, according to TAME, “MCDOT arranged the study in a way that provided the outcome it wanted.”

Moreover, TAME argued that the agency’s official cost estimates for the project were misleading. The official estimate of $371 million included in MCDOT’s Midcounty Corridor Study Draft Environmental Effects Report fails to include a range of costs that will be involved in the project, including environmental mitigation (the cost of mitigating the project’s impacts on wetlands, floodplains, forests and so on), which TAME estimates at $53.5 million, as well as additional infrastructure such as a number of future new interchanges and connections. In all, these undeclared costs total a little over a billion dollars, on top of MCDOT’s official estimate.

TAME’s analysis, laid out in a number of detailed studies published over the last few years, has meticulously dismantled MCDOT’s case for M-83, demonstrating how the agency’s preferred alternative fails to meet the needs of local residents or the stated goals laid out in the Midcounty Corridor Study’s Purpose and Need statement and will cause immense environmental damage in the process. There is a strong likelihood, the reports suggest, that this alternative would induce additional development along the corridor and attract new traffic (as happened after the widening of I-270 in the 1990s), “add additional congestion on connecting roads, lower quality of life for Clarksburg and other residential communities … and undermine the county’s long-held goal of reducing auto dependence.”

Given the “high cost and low certainty of success in attempting to build our way out of traffic,” TAME argue, “as well as shifting travel trends in the corridor that reflect a countywide desire to drive less and utilize other options more, the county should look carefully at a combination transit alternative that could better manage demand and provide new healthier, more sustainable options to communities whose only current option is to drive.”

As a result of the sustained demands of TAME Coalition researchers and activists and local government allies, MCDOT finally produced a study of the “combination transit alternative” in 2017. MCDOT’s Midcounty Corridor Study Supplemental Report examined the role of Upcounty transit — and specifically, bus rapid transit. The report found that when it excluded the proposed M-83 highway from its analysis, and focused instead on bus rapid transit on Route 355, along with improvements to existing intersections and roads, BRT-based scenarios excelled in relieving congestion, in particular in terms of lowest number of miles traveled in private vehicles, highest percentage of people traveling by transit and shortest rush hour travel times on Route 355, among other key metrics.

That same year, the Montgomery County Council approved a resolution titled “Transportation Solution for Northwest Montgomery County” instructing the County Planning Board to disregard M-83 altogether when making future decisions about development. Until M-83 is eliminated from the county's Master Plan altogether, however, the potential for its resurrection remains, and local residents’ campaign to put an end to it once and for all continues.

Were it to be revived, the consequences would be devastating for local communities and natural resources, including wetlands and waterways, an agricultural reserve, and neighborhoods in Montgomery Village and Germantown.[xvii] Nonprofit Clean Water Action warns that the highway poses a direct threat to 25 residential neighborhoods, the Great Seneca Creek Trail and North Germantown Greenway Stream Valley Park, 100 acres of public forest, 14 wetlands, six streams, natural floodplains and more than 60 acres of Montgomery County’s agricultural reserve. TAME, whose advocates have testified against the project at numerous public hearings since the mid-1970s, argue that, “if built, M-83 would wipe out everything in its path.”

M-83 would also fail to solve the problem it is designed to solve: MCDOT’s own projections show that building M-83 would lead to just as many clogged intersections as if minor improvements were made to existing roadways.

TAME – which now includes state and local elected officials, civic organizations and a range of other groups, as well as residents of the neighborhoods that would be impacted by the Mid-County Highway Extended – continues to make the case for transit-based alternatives to the highway. “Removing M-83 highway from the master plans, and stepping-up investments in Upcounty transit,” their website argues, “will set a clear direction toward people-centric and away from car-centric travel; will avoid increasing the county’s carbon emissions from transportation; and will enhance climate resilience through protection of existing forests, wetlands and stream valleys in Upcounty communities.”

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