The Maryland Department of Transportation has agreed to study a Capital Beltway/I-270 traffic relief program crafted by Montgomery County, Deputy Secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr. told a meeting of top leaders from the capital region.
The county’s plan is an adaptation of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s push to widen the two roads two lanes in each direction using privately financed express toll lanes. It was designed to provide congestion relief with less impact on highway-adjacent neighborhoods than the state’s proposal, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) told Maryland Matters.
The decision to study Montgomery’s proposal represents a potential easing of tensions between the Hogan (R) and Elrich administrations.
“I really think the governor wants to solve the problem,” Elrich said. “We think we can solve the problem they want to solve and get real traffic relief. … I feel pretty good about it in terms of competitiveness.”
The county’s plan prioritizes improvements to the American Legion Bridge, the western-most section of the Beltway and the most congested portion of I-270. It seeks congestion relief on I-495 between the I-270 spur and I-95 in College Park through improvements that use the existing right of way, a bid to avoid the public opposition Hogan’s plan has generated.
Among the plan’s highlights:
- The county proposes the construction of new “managed lanes” — a mix of free and variable toll lanes — on the American Legion Bridge, I-270 from a point north of I-370 south and the connecting portion of I-495.
- New managed lanes also would be constructed on the I-95 median, from the Intercounty Connector (MD-200) to the Beltway and east through Prince George’s County to National Harbor.
- The plan creates new reversible managed lanes between Frederick County and northern Montgomery that would run south in the morning and north at night.
- It calls for “active traffic management and spot improvements” along the Beltway from Bethesda to Adelphi, using existing right of way.
- It envisions improvements to MARC commuter rail service, a network of bus rapid transit lines, new park-and-ride facilities and “activity center connections” to give commuters new options.
In a letter to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board requesting that the county’s plan be studied alongside the Hogan administration’s current seven options, Elrich wrote, “We believe our recommendations represents a more complete and environmentally sensitive approach to meeting our region’s transportation needs.”
In announcing the state’s willingness to study the county plan, Lewis pledged that it will receive the same analysis that the state’s original 15 plans — since whittled to seven — received.
“The purpose of the analysis will be to determine if the alternative is reasonable and that it meets the purpose and need established for the I-495/I-270 Managed Lanes Study,” Lewis said.
“We are also planning public and elected official outreach in August, and this alternative will be part of that process,” he added.
Lewis noted that State Highway Administration personnel met with transportation and planning officials from Montgomery and Prince George’s on July 19.
Elrich and Montgomery County Councilman Evan Glass (D) praised state officials for their willingness to give the county’s plan a review.
“We’re finally at a place where [Hogan] and his team are engaged in substantive conversations with county officials, and that is a good thing,” Glass said.
The plan the governor announced in 2017 calls for two new express toll lanes in each direction on both roads, financed and built by private firms in exchange for the right to charge variable tolls for at least the next 50 years.
Because of space constraints along the Montgomery portion of the Beltway, that plan generated public opposition, and concern that inevitably the state would need to burrow under the existing road or add potentially noisy and unsightly elevated lanes. It also led to public tension between Hogan and Elrich.
“It’s a great breakthrough,” said John Townsend II, head of public and governmental relations for Mid-Atlantic AAA. “At least people are now talking alternatives and options.”
He noted that Fairfax County, Va., has had nearly twice the job growth of Montgomery over the last couple decades, leading to the mass exodus of workers each morning.
“It’s a recognition on the part of Montgomery County that you cannot condemn your residents to sit in all that traffic. … [They] have got to stop the bleeding. They have to fix the roads so they can create more jobs within the county.”
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