Federal Planners Push Back at Hogan’s Plan to Add Toll Lanes on Beltway, 270

Traffic prepares to merge onto I-270 from I-370 in Gaithersburg. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Members of an influential federal panel expressed frustration with the Maryland State Highway Administration on Thursday, accusing the agency of failing to do a rigorous analysis of a proposal that — according to backers — could ease traffic congestion in Montgomery County by using existing roadways.

The panel, the National Capital Planning Commission, is crafting its official response to a key environmental report on the Hogan administration’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) and Interstate 270.

During a lengthy discussion, commission members expressed many of the same criticisms that local leaders, state legislators and planning agency staff in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have leveled at SHA ever since Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced plans to add four “express toll lanes” to the two highways.

Chief among their concerns is a failure to consider a locally-favored alternative to Hogan’s proposal: encouraging I-95 motorists who are heading for Northern Virginia via the American Legion Bridge to use the Intercounty Connector (MD 200, also known as the ICC), an under-utilized toll road, rather than the Beltway.

A top NCPC planner said that drawing traffic from over-congested portions of I-495 onto the ICC would accommodate expected growth in traffic and reduce the loss of parkland.

The analysis that has been done “shows sufficient benefit from the Maryland 200 alternative to warrant additional development and assessment by the state,” said Michael Weil, an urban planner in the NCPC Urban Design & Plan Review Division.

Parkland that was transferred from the federal government to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission was intended to remain as open space. Although a full review of the ICC option “really focuses on our preservation interests… of the parks,” Weil said, he expressed doubt that SHA would go back and study the ICC option in more detail.

Commission members urged staff to press the issue in their response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

“These are pretty significant issues,” Commissioner Beth White said. “It’s important to keep pushing, because the analysis should be done.”

The NCPC is the federal planning agency for the national capital region and is a potentially influential voice as the state moves toward a final decision on which of several highway designs SHA selects.

“I don’t know how we can do our job without” additional analysis of the MD 200 alternative, Commissioner Andrew Trueblood said. SHA’s failure to put it through more rigorous modeling reminded him of other issues the agency encounters “where we get jammed into what the project sponsor wants. The difference here is there’s a pretty clear federal law and pretty clear mandate” to study alternatives.

The NCPC letter to the state will highlight other concerns that commissioners have with SHA’s approach to the project:

  • Impacts that highway-widening would have on neighborhood parks and an African-American cemetery where former slaves are buried.
  • Changes in commuting patterns and growth in telework since the COVID-19 pandemic struck are not reflected in the environmental review.
  • Future use of computer-driven vehicles is not sufficiently addressed.
  • The study’s “purpose and need” is too focused on “managed lanes” (variably-priced toll lanes that motorists can use to zip around congestion) and not enough on “regional mobility.”

In the event a lawsuit is filed in opposition to the State Highway’s recommendation, the views of the National Capital Planning Commission “are given real weight,” said a Maryland legal expert who asked not to be identified. Not as much as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Department of the Interior’s views, “but they are a significant voice.”

M-NCPPC staffers have complained for months that SHA is rushing the project, unwilling to share information and closed-minded about alternatives, and members of the federal panel echoed those sentiments.

“There seems to be a continuing unwillingness to explore the options,” Commissioner Mina Wright said. “I just wish they would be more forthcoming.”

“I don’t mind somebody saying… we looked into it and it really didn’t cut the mustard,” she added. “I do mind being stiff-armed.”

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