Local Planners Fume Over Unreported Additions to Highway Document

Carol Rubin, a Montgomery County planner who has been critical of the Hogan administration's approach to widening the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

A dispute over a crucial planning document has further strained relations between the State Highway Administration and Montgomery County planners reviewing the Hogan administration’s plan to widen two highways.

The agency, part of the Maryland Department of Transportation, posted its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, a voluminous and federally-mandated report, to its website on July 10. 

Appendices containing hundreds of pages of supporting documentation and analysis failed to upload, however. MDOT SHA noticed the error and added the material the following day. 

But Montgomery planners complain the state agency did so without notifying the public.

“We downloaded the entire document — almost 18,0000-page document — the day it was published and have been using that to do our review,” said Carol S. Rubin, special projects manager in charge of the I-495/I-270 Managed Lanes Study for the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. 

“We had no notice to go back and look at new materials.” 

Rubin said the agency was alerted to the changes by a citizen who is following the process.

She said she is angered not by the failure to upload the entire report on Day 1 but by the lack of communication from the state. 

“Things were added,” she said. “We’re talking about going from a 17,500-page document to a 19,000-page document. … They should have notified people that this was a mistake.”

MDOT SHA holds the first of six public hearings on the Hogan administration’s controversial plan to wide two highways and the American Legion Bridge on Tuesday. Citizens have been given 90 days to review and comment on the Draft EIS. 

Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson said Monday night that “SHA’s failure to be transparent about this error places the integrity of the entire process into question.”

Casey Anderson

In his testimony on Tuesday, Anderson will tell MDOT officials they “must” restart the 90-day clock. And because some witnesses will have based their comments on a document that was “out of date” when they read it, he will recommend that additional hearings be added to the schedule.

“This is not hide and seek,” he said. “This is supposed to be a complete document that represents the state’s thinking at the point when they issued the draft, not a moving target.”

Erin P. Henson, a spokeswoman for MDOT, told Maryland Matters on Tuesday morning that the agency has asked the federal government to extend the comment period an additional 30 days and is waiting for approval to do so.

But in an email on Monday, another MDOT spokesman, Terry Owens rejected the suggestion that the DEIS changed.

“All Technical Reports (appendices to the DEIS) were uploaded originally on July 10, 2020 at the same time as the DEIS,” he said. 

“In reviewing all the information that was posted, it was noted that Appendix A & B of the Alternatives Technical Report (DEIS Appendix B) and the appendices of the Traffic Analysis Technical Report (DEIS Appendix C) did not upload and those appendices were immediately uploaded on July 11.”

“The appendices for each of these DEIS Technical Reports are clearly listed in the table of contents of each Technical Report that was originally uploaded on July 10,” Owens added.

When an MDOT spokeswoman was asked on Aug. 10 about reports that 1,600 pages were added to the original version, she stated flatly, “It has not changed. The published DEIS cannot change. It is an official [National Environmental Policy Act] document currently in the comment period.”

Rubin, who has clashed with her MDOT counterparts over information-sharing and communication for months, said the failure to flag the update was “unconscionable.” 

“I don’t care if they fixed it five hours later,” she said. “When you said to the public ‘here’s the DEIS,’ and then you add to it without notice to anyone, I don’t understand how they can expect people to support this process.” 

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.