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18,000 Pages, Myriad Questions: Hogan’s Highway-Widening Plan Faces the Public

Supporters and opponents of the Hogan administration’s plan to widen two highways in the Washington, D.C., suburbs get their first opportunity to formally react to a key environmental report on Tuesday, when the Maryland Department of Transportation holds the first of six public comment sessions.

The report, known as the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), is more than 18,000 pages long. Opponents of the highway plan have been combing through the document feverishly since its release on July 10 in preparation for the public hearings, which run through mid-September.

They don’t have a lot of time. As it stands now, the review period is 90 days.  A bevy of elected officials and advocates have requested an additional 30 days, particularly in light of a glitch that occurred when SHA uploaded the massive documents in July.  That request is pending before the Federal Highway Administration, an MDOT spokeswoman said.

“The comment period and the public hearing schedule are ridiculous,” said Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D), a leading critic of the plan. “This is a document that’s 15 times the length of ‘War and Peace.’ And taxpayers would have to read 200 pages a day for 90 days to get through it all.”

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced plans to add four lanes — two in each direction — to the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Interstate 270 in 2017.

Under his proposal, Maryland would use its public-private partnership law to engage for-profit firms to finance, design and build “express toll lanes” in exchange for the right to set and keep toll revenues for 50 years or more. The firms would be responsible for maintenance of the new lanes and all existing lanes, which would remain toll-free.

The D.C. region is home to some of the worst road congestion in the nation, and the DEIS shows that many motorists — those willing to pay tolls and those who opt for “free” lanes alike — would reach their destinations faster if the state moves forward with its plans.

But opponents of the project have seized on a number of concerns during the 30-plus days since the document was posted to MDOT’s website. They are expected to raise these objections and others during the four virtual and two in-person public hearings MDOT is scheduled to hold over the next four weeks.

MDOT officials have informed the Federal Highway Administration that they’d like to extend the comment period for another 30 days but have not yet gotten a sign-off, an agency spokeswoman said.

A worse commute for Montgomery, Frederick motorists?

One of the biggest concerns critics have is the impact of the state’s road-widening project on homebound commuters who use I-270 to head north.

Before the COVID-19 epidemic, northbound commuters faced lengthy delays near Montgomery Village, where the road narrows from six lanes to two — not just at rush hour but on a regular basis.

On Page 124 of Appendix C of the DEIS, planners concede that creating an eight-lanes-to-two bottleneck will make congestion worse.

“In some cases, the Build Screened Alternatives are projected to operate worse than… No Build [not adding lanes] along I-270 due to increased volumes in the system and/or reduced capacity in the off-peak direction from the removal of the HOV lanes,” planners acknowledge.

A graphic on Page 122, labeled “Key Points,” puts a sunnier spin on the increase in travel time that Germantown-, Clarksburg- and Frederick-bound commuters can expect.

“Along I-270 Northbound, the Build Screened Alternatives [MDOT’s preferred designs] do not have a significant travel time saving as compared to the No Build condition,” authors wrote.

It’s not the lack of “time savings” that alarms project opponents. It’s the growth in delays the lane-widening would create.

Figure 5-73 of Appendix C, on page 150, shows that commuters who take I-270 north of I-370 will experience an increase in travel time “above 10%,” but it offers no additional detail.

“That would be a disaster,” said Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick), an advocate of increased use of telework. “It’s so stressful. So stressful for our families. So stressful for everybody.”

A look at where in the process the environmental impact study is in the I-495/I-270 expansion project. MDOT screenshot courtesy of WTOP News

Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), a backer of the P3, said she has “a huge concern for that traffic that’s north of [Montgomery Village] going up to Frederick.” King said she intended to ask Transportation Secretary Greg Slater about the potential of longer commutes.

Ben Ross, the chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, said the analysis severely undercuts the project’s rationale. “This is core to the whole project,” he said. “The project makes no sense if it makes traffic worse.”

“Everyone who drives north on 270 knows that the backups are at the lane merges. It’s just obvious that if you merge traffic from eight lanes into two lanes, it’ll be worse than merging traffic from six lanes into two lanes.”

Backers of the road-widening program acknowledge that Phase 1 will not bring uniform benefits to all. But subsequent transportation upgrades will, they said.

“The analysis, by design, does not include further improvements north of the [Intercounty Connector,]” said Wes Guckert, president of the Traffic Group, a Baltimore-based consulting firm. “The next set of improvements will expand northbound 270 from north of the ICC up into Frederick.”

What will Express Toll Lanes on I-495 & I-270 cost?

One of the key selling points of “managed lanes” is that motorists who use free lanes will benefit when other motorists hop into Express Toll Lanes to zip around them.

This is true only if ETLs are affordable, critics counter.

So how much will it cost to use the new lanes? The DEIS doesn’t say, noting that a separate body, the Maryland Transportation Authority, will vote to establish a rate range, after the contract is signed and after a citizen comment period.

Despite that caveat, planners created “estimated opening year (2025) average weekday toll rates per mile.” They vary from $0.68 per mile to $0.77 per mile, depending on which road widening design is ultimately adopted. That would be significantly higher than the highest peak rate of $0.35 per mile on the Inter-County Connector (MD 200).

And as commuters familiar with Virginia’s toll lanes are painfully aware, rush-hour tolls are much higher than those charged other times. Critics of Hogan’s P3 contend that the value of an “average” toll is minimal. What the public deserves — before the project is approved — is a sense of what it will cost to use ETL’s before and after the workday, when the roads are the most crowded, they said.

“The fact that the toll will be low at 5 a.m., nobody cares about,” said Ross. “What you care about is the rush hour, when you actually want to use it.”

He said MDOT could only have arrived at an average if it had specific estimated tolls for each portion of the day. “We know that they did it because they say that they split the day into 13 time periods, but they’re not telling you the numbers for the individual time periods.”

Said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Transportation and Environment Committee: “As a general rule, I would want more transparency as to what rates are during peak times. Obviously that’s when it’s going to be the most important.”

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) said that if the state is withholding rush-hour tolls to preserve its negotiating power with the four potential bidders, that’s a mistake.

“We can’t try to game the vendors into bidding low if that’s not going to support the project,” he said. “It’s better to be honest now about what the needs are so that the bidders are coming in with honest costs. We don’t want another Purple Line situation.”

Ross said he doubts any concessionaires would commit to a 50-year contract with the state without knowing at the outset what revenues they can expect to take in.

Achieving unaccounted-for cost savings

Despite numerous changes since Hogan announced the project in 2017, its cost, according to MDOT officials, has remained remarkably stable.

The draft environment impact statement pegs the price tag at between $9 billion and $9.6 billion, depending on which specific design gets chosen. The 18,000-page document devotes half a page to cost, with no backup or explanation as to how planners arrived at that number.

Equally troubling for critics is vague wording on the last page of Appendix B, Page 148.

The document says that MDOT used its 2017 “Highway Construction Cost Estimating Manual” and its 2018 and 2019 “Common Item Guides” to determine likely expenses, and that “costs for wetland, stream, parkland, and forest mitigation were estimated based on environmental mitigation costs from previous large [State Highway Administration] projects, including the ICC and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.”

In addition, planners applied their standard “recommended range of contingency factors” — things that turn out differently than anticipated. That range is 25% to 40%, and the DEIS opted for the lowest number — 25%.

But in the very last paragraph, the document says the construction costs used in the financial analysis were “adjusted” to “reflect assumed efficiencies in costs for major items such as asphalt pavement and structural materials.”

Ross, the transit advocate, smells a rat.

“They made an estimate and it was too high, and they just arbitrarily changed it,” he charged. “They used their cost estimating manual and then they changed the numbers. … That’s enormous.”

MDOT responds 

Maryland Matters attempted to get detailed responses to these issues from the Maryland Department of Transportation.

In an email, spokesman Terry Owens said:

“The purpose of the DEIS is to present the results of our efforts over the last two years to the public and seek their input. Through detailed analyses of traffic, environmental, and financial considerations, the public is provided the entire picture so they may provide informed input, not draw any conclusion on one single data point. We have reviewed your questions, and they do not appear to be referencing the appropriate sections of the DEIS as posted online on July 10.”

Owens refused to say how much costs were adjusted, why they were adjusted, or whether other high-profile projects have been structured in this manner.

He said “the cost estimates provided are for the limits of the Managed Lanes Study, and these estimates were completed using typical MDOT SHA and industry procedures for a study at this level of detail. Costs at this point in the planning process are typically estimated using historical data and adjusted using engineering judgment based on regional location, size of project and type of work, which is precisely what was done here.”

Owens wouldn’t comment specifically on the project’s impact on commuters who live in northern Montgomery and Frederick counties.

“The DEIS provides the benefits and impacts of each alternative so the public can understand the potential effects of each alternative and provide comment,” he said. “The DEIS outlines how each alternative meets the purpose in the MLS corridor of addressing congestion, including reducing traffic on the local system, improving trip reliability on I-495 and I-270 and enhancing multimodal mobility and connectivity including transit. While a single data point does not accurately represent how well any alternative meets the purpose and need of the study, comments are welcomed on any particular data point.”

One influential transportation advocate likes what he sees in the environmental report.

“The DEIS reveals the P3 will still provide a reliable and much-needed option for motorists, transit users, car poolers  and others using the corridors,” said John Townsend II, government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “It also reveals what will transpire under no-build alternatives, which is not a viable option. The P3 project should remain on path.”

Tuesday’s hearing will be held online, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Three subsequent hearings will also be online only, while two will be held in live venues — one in Montgomery County, one in Prince George’s County. For more information on the hearings, click here.

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18,000 Pages, Myriad Questions: Hogan’s Highway-Widening Plan Faces the Public