After years of study, the Maryland Department of Transportation has chosen its “preferred alternative” for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to expand portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, the agency announced on Wednesday.
MDOT selected Alternative 9, which will add four High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes — two in each direction — to I-495 between the American Legion Bridge and the I-270 spurs, and to I-270 between the Beltway and Interstate 70 in Frederick.
The new lanes will be “managed lanes.” To use them, cars with one or two people will pay a toll that will vary depending on traffic volumes. The lanes will be funded, built and maintained by a private consortium which will set the toll rates within parameters established by the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Vehicles with three people, including buses and commuter vans, will be allowed to use the new lanes toll-free.
MDOT’s plan converts the existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-270 into HOT lanes. Currently, motorists with a single passenger are allowed to use I-270’s HOV lanes at peak periods, bypassing “general purpose” lanes that tend to be more crowded.
In its announcement, the agency said Alternative 9 would cut travel times for motorists and transit-users alike, offering “the best average speed and travel times on I-495 and I-270, achieving free-flow speeds in the managed lanes while averaging 41 miles per hour in the free general purpose lanes, during peak periods.”
According to the state, average trips during peak evening hours from the American Legion Bridge to I-370 would take 15 minutes in the managed lanes and 23 minutes in the free lanes.
MDOT said the average commuter would save 73 hours of travel time per year.
Other components of the state’s plan include:
- A separate bike/pedestrian connection on the new American Legion Bridge and improved bikeway connectivity throughout the corridor.
- In addition to allowing buses and commuter vans to use the new HOT lanes for free, the state is committing to other transit enhancements, including more bus capacity at the Shady Grove Metrorail Station and an expanded Park-and-Ride at the Westfield Montgomery Mall Transit Center.
- Some toll revenue will be allocated to counties to improve local transit service.
- “Environment enhancements” in areas that may be “compromised,” including “water-quality improvements, stream restoration, and removal of invasive species on county parkland.”
- A re-commitment to “collaboration with the bi-county Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission” to address planners’ concerns about water quality, stream stabilization, flooding and pollution.
The agency’s decision is a major step in a years-long process of analysis and public discussion of the plan Hogan (R) announced with fanfare in 2017. He hailed the project as a “game-changer” that would address one of the Washington, D.C.-area’s biggest traffic-chokepoints, though it has proven controversial.
Three private-sector teams are vying for the right to build Phase 1 of the project. The state is expected to select a winning bidder within the coming days.
Local officials in Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George’s counties have been almost universally opposed to Hogan’s plan because of its potential encroachment on surrounding neighborhoods and parkland, environmental impact, and the potential for more traffic. State lawmakers have voiced strenuous objections as well, and homeowners have banded together to fight the project.
Critics have dubbed managed lanes “Lexus Lanes” that primarily benefit the well-to-do, a contention that officials at Transurban, Virginia’s contractor, reject.
Hogan and others have said the state must rely on private financing because it lacks the resources to expand road capacity on its own. Backers of “express toll lanes” — such as those on I-95 north of Baltimore and throughout Northern Virginia — say they benefit all motorists because those who opt to pay the tolls free up space in the remaining, no-cost lanes.
Planners in Montgomery and Prince George’s have had a tense relationship with their counterparts at the State Highway Administration, accusing them of not sharing information or taking their suggestions and concerns seriously.
MDOT and its federal partner, the Federal Highway Administration, are now in the process of responding to the approximately 3,000 comments residents submitted during the formal public feedback period.
The pushback from officials and the public has led to numerous changes. The state has essentially deferred plans to widen the Beltway between the I-270 spur and I-95 in Prince George’s County indefinitely.
The plan to widen the Beltway from I-95 to MD 5 in Prince George’s has been deferred as well. Also, the planned widening of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway appears to have fallen victim to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s unwillingness to part with the road.
In addition, the state re-ordered the phasing of the project to start with the construction of a new American Legion Bridge in partnership with Virginia, a change long sought by Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D).
Montgomery officials were not briefed on the state’s selection of Alternative 9 prior to Wednesday’s press release.
“It would be nice to find out about the state’s plans for the largest construction project in state history from the state and not Maryland Matters,” said Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D), dryly.
Brad German, cochairman of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, accused MDOT of “racing to approve a design, a developer, and toll rates months before there’s a Final Environmental Impact Statement to show whether the project is even viable.”
Noting that the state could be forced to reimburse its private sector partner as much as $50 million for “pre-development work” if the project does not advance, German said Wednesday’s action “underscores the urgent need for legislation to get the State’s P3 process under control.”
Reaction is mixed
Alternative 9 was one of six designs that MDOT has been studying for more than a year.
In selecting it over the five other proposals, the agency rejected suggestions to build two reversible lanes on I-270, rather than two lanes in each direction. MDOT also rejected proposals that would have kept the current HOV lanes in place.
One lawmaker who opposes the project said commuters will find that I-270’s chokepoint at MD 124, where the road narrows to two lanes, will grow even worse because of the new lanes.
“It’s already six lanes in each direction in the part they’re talking about doing first,” said Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery). “It’s kind of crazy to think we can add another four lanes of traffic there and think we’ve solved anything.”
The head of a key House appropriations subcommittee, Korman said that upper Montgomery and Frederick residents “are going to suffer the worst if this goes through.”
Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who represents several communities in the I-270 corridor, declined to comment.
“I take it from what they’ve said in the past that their intention is to follow-on with additional widening to the north,” said Montgomery County Planning Board chairman Casey Anderson. “But I can’t even keep track of what their process is for the initial phase of the project, because that seems to be a work in progress, to put it charitably.”
Some transportation advocates said the state’s selection of a four-lane design would help congestion-weary motorists in Montgomery, the state’s largest county and its economic powerhouse.
“Alternative 9 is the best of all possible alternatives, not only in terms of reducing traffic, it also is the most financially viable option,” said John B. Townsend II, head of government and media affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “That is a win-win for highway users and taxpayers alike.”
“This alternative is also a big win for Montgomery County,” Townsend added. “It is getting what it asked for in terms of the American Legion Bridge, and having a say on portions of the Beltway east of 270. Can it take ‘yes’ as an answer?”
Emmet Tydings, chairman pro tem of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, also called the state’s decision to add four lanes to the two thoroughfares “a big win for Montgomery County.” In addition to the increased road capacity, he applauded the state for “providing the long-missing link between the major [hiker-biker] trails of Montgomery and Fairfax Counties.”
“Alternative 9 provides local officials with the assurance they’ve repeatedly asked for that MDOT will not proceed with permitting and implementation of subsequent phases without additional environmental reviews and collaboration with agencies and the public,” he added.
Hucker and Anderson expect traffic volumes to increase as a result of the road-widening.
“(The plan) doesn’t align with our climate goals, at a national or state level, and it just encourages more cars to be on the road,” said Hucker.
Said Anderson: “Anything that adds capacity, even if it’s tolled, is going to increase driving. … That can’t possibly be helpful from a climate-change point of view.”
Finding room to expand remains a challenge
By focusing on portion of the Beltway that runs from the American Legion Bridge to I-270, and not the stretch between New Hampshire and Wisconsin Avenues, state highway planners are avoiding a fight with communities where opposition to the project has been loudest — at least for now.
“I’m not suggesting it’ll be easy on that segment, but they did pick the part that is relatively easier,” said Anderson.
Korman remains concerned about how the state and its private-sector partners will find room to add four lanes, saying “a lot of us would like to know those answers before we hand over control to a private entity.”
“They’ve never been able to explain how they were going to fit two lanes in each direction on the Beltway,” he said. “They’ve thrown out a lot of ideas, like double-decking or cut-and-cover, but they’ve never actually explained how they would do it.”
Editor’s Note: This breaking news story was updated with additional information throughout the day Wednesday.