Environmentalists Fall Short on Road-Widening Bill

Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) at a news conference last week in Annapolis. Elrich had advocated for the same transit improvements the state was prepared to make if Amazon had agreed to build its headquarters in North Bethesda. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Environmentalists and a group of Montgomery and Prince George’s homeowners were dealt a defeat when a bill to force greater scrutiny of the Hogan administration’s highway-widening plans died on the last day of the session. 

The measure, HB 1091, passed the House of Delegates 96-42 on March 18.

It required in-depth environmental and financial reviews of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s plans to widen the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Interstate 270 by two lanes in each direction.

The state wants to utilize a public-private partnership — a P3, in industry parlance — in which private contractors would fund the roadwork in exchange for the right to charge tolls on the new lanes.

The measure died in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee without a vote.

The failure means road-widening opponents leave Annapolis with little to show for their efforts 

“We are deeply disappointed that the Budget and Taxation Committee failed to call for a vote on House Bill 1091, that passed the House weeks ago,” said Josh Tulkin, head of the Maryland Sierra Club.

“Governor Hogan and MDOT are rushing a proposal to massively expand I-495 and I-270 without even understanding how these plans would impact our air, water and climate for generations to come. In failing to vote, the Senate has put our environment, health and future at risk.”

At a news conference last week, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich expressed frustration that Hogan (R) appeared wedded to a four-lane expansion of I-270. What is needed — in the executive’s view — is two new reversible lanes, something he said can be achieved in the road’s existing footprint.

Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery), the chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the administration has sent signals they are not wedded to a particular approach. 

“I got the impressive from talking to the governor and from talking to Secretary [Pete] Rahn that they want something that’s going to work,” King said. “I don’t think that they’re firm on anything yet. And I just feel like we need to give them that chance.” 

King’s district includes many commuters who drive to jobs in Bethesda, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, and she expressed concern that additional reviews would slow congestion relief.

“The people I’m talking to are tired of sitting on I-270. They want more immediate help on 270 than waiting three years for anything to happen. And if there is something that can be done with striping and that kind of stuff, I’d rather do that and get people off the roads sooner.

King acknowledged that Hogan’s plans to widen the Beltway could have significant impacts on communities that abut the road.

“There’s something different that’s going to happen with those roads, and their homes will be in jeopardy if they expand two more lanes. I still think that the governor’s people are going to do the best they can to not take any homes. I hope I’m right,” King said.

Last year, while campaigning for a second term, Hogan pledged that no homes or businesses will be taken by eminent domain to make room for the additional lanes. Given the cramped confines of I-495, some have questioned how the state can keep that promise. 

With the failure of HB 1091, environmental groups intend to pressure the two Democrats who sit with Hogan on the Board of Public Works — Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot — to scrutinize the P3-related contracts that come before the panel.  

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