The leaders of a Montgomery County community that could be profoundly impacted by the Hogan administration’s plans to widen the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) urged Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) on Monday to oppose the state’s plans to build “express toll lanes” on the well-traveled interstate.
In a letter to Franchot, members of the Village of North Chevy Chase Council accused the State Highway Administration of a “rush to judgment” on a project they said would greatly increase pollution and traffic. They also said the Hogan administration has backtracked on a pledge to work cooperatively with municipal officials in the communities surrounding the highway.
Franchot, a member of the three-person Board of Public Works, is widely considered a swing vote on Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen the Beltway, Interstate 270 and the American Legion Bridge two lanes in each direction. Hogan has proposed a controversial financing system in which private-sector firms provide up-front construction costs in return for the right to collect toll revenues of varying amounts for 50 years or more.
A vote on key amendments to Hogan’s plan — and 80 unrelated items — was supposed to take place on Wednesday. But the governor cancelled the meeting on Saturday night.
One of the changes the Board of Public Works is being asked to approve would combine Phase I of the project (the widening of the bridge and the lower portion of I-270) with Phase II (the expansion of the Beltway from the bridge to I-95), a significant change from the current phasing.
The Village of North Chevy Chase, a community of 210 homes inside the Beltway and east of Connecticut Avenue, views that amendment as “backtracking” on a promise to allow more time for discussion about the widening of I-495.
“Such a move would be nothing less than a blatant breach of trust, reflecting an unwarranted rush to judgment on a range of important issues,” officials wrote.
Letters to homeowners
In late October, some residents of the town began receiving letters from the State Highway Administration notifying them that surveyors would soon need access to their property to do research and conduct measurements.
“These surveys may include visual identification of land features, streams, wetlands, noise barriers, utilities, etc.,” the letter, from Lisa Choplin, director of State Highway’s I-495 & I-270 public-private partnership office, said.
The letters heightened fears that the state plans to place one of a limited number of express toll lane access points at Connecticut Avenue.
Express toll lanes need separation from “free” lanes to keep traffic moving smoothly, and they require their own on- and off-ramps.
Large ramps connecting Connecticut Avenue to the Beltway would require the state to condemn homes in the Village of North Chevy Chase, local officials fear, while making life worse for the remaining homeowners closest to the new, expanded highway.
“Connecticut Avenue already experiences unbearable congestion during significant portions of the day with a failed traffic intersection at Jones Bridge Road,” the town’s letter to Franchot states.
“Construction of additional lanes along Connecticut Avenue for access to and from the Beltway toll lanes will exacerbate that congestion considerably. Additional adverse consequences from that include increased exposure to vehicular air pollutants for Village residents and an increase in cut-through traffic on Village streets.”
The State Highway Administration’s letter to homeowners describes at length the benefits of the agency’s “transformative” plan for dealing with the capital region’s congested roads, which it said will “improve the daily lives of citizens and other users by reducing congestion and providing a more reliable trip.”
Efforts to educate the public and solicit comments are described as well.
Only then, several paragraphs in, are residents told that “MDOT SHA may need to temporarily enter onto your property.”
Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), whose district includes North Chevy Chase, asked SHA for a list of residents who received the letter, but the agency rejected his request.
“They cited a 2018 change to the [Maryland] Public Information Act that was really designed for something else,” Carr said. “It was designed to protect people who signed up for email newsletters at a county or agency.”
“What that says to me is they do not want to share information about this project with anyone who might scrutinize the project and they’re willing to stretch the Public Information Act to its limits, distort the Public Information Act [and] take advantage of loopholes, to avoid sharing information,” Carr added.
Maury Mechanick, a member of the Village of North Chevy Chase Council, said the town was blindsided by the letters from the state, despite a prior pledge from SHA officials to keep them in the loop.
“We were surprised, unhappy and disappointed,” he said in an interview. “This is not the first time this has happened in connection with this activity.”
“They have created a veneer of transparency in terms of what they’re doing,” Mechanick added, “but this is just one further indication that this is a veneer, not real transparency, and this is a problem that will continue in the future.”
Mechanick estimated that between 15 and 30 homeowners received letters from the state, but the true number remains a mystery.
The letters to homeowners and the uncertainty about the timing and scope of the state’s project have triggered a “grave concern” in the community, the councilman said. In light of Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn’s deference to the private sector, residents are worried the state won’t have the ability to mitigate impacts on existing communities.
“We are very concerned that the state is not going to have the ability whatsoever to influence what the concessionaire decides to do or how they’re going to do it, and that the consequences are going to fall as they fall,” Mechanick said. “But the victims of that will be the communities.”
Maryland Matters reached out to the MDOT press office on Monday, attempting to determine whether the state plans ramps at Connecticut Avenue and to learn more about why Carr’s request for information was denied. No reply was received as of late Monday.