D.C.-Area Planning Board Slams Hogan Administration Plan for Widening Capital Beltway, I-270

The Capital Beltway near the Interstate 270 spur. Photo by Dave Dildine/WTOP.

One week after the Maryland Department of Transportation unveiled its plan to add four high-occupancy toll lanes to portions of two Montgomery County highways, top planning officials in the Washington, D.C. region slammed the project in unusually blunt terms.

The leaders of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) said the state’s plan to widen parts of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 failed to divert enough cars off the road through increased transit.

And they said the project would harm waterways and parkland in the path of the two roads.

The planning agency’s sharply-worded statement, released on Wednesday, signaled the project will likely become the subject of litigation, a local expert said.

“We are extremely disappointed in the state’s ‘preferred alternative’ for adding lanes to these highways while offering nothing to reduce the need for more cars,” said M-NCPPC Chairman Elizabeth M. Hewlett.

State of Maryland rendering.

“As stewards of the environment and important community assets, we are experienced in crafting sound land use and transportation policies for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties,” she added. “It’s just indefensible that the state’s proposal ignores our recommendations to use part of the toll revenue to fund transit as part of a strategy to minimize the amount of land ― including parkland ― that will be paved.”

State officials believe much of the project can be done within I-270’s existing walls. What’s unknown is how much land will be needed to build off-ramps to connect toll-lane users with local roads.

As part of a 2019 agreement with Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), MDOT has agreed to provide revenue from the future variably-priced “managed lanes” to Montgomery County for transit improvements. And the agency pledged last week to beef up bus capacity at the Shady Grove Metrorail Station and expand the Park-and-Ride service at the Westfield Montgomery Mall Transit Center, among other enhancements.

But planners said the project design announced by MDOT last week “does not provide for any allocation of toll revenue for the expansion of transit, such as a Metrorail extension, bus rapid transit or expanded MARC service.”

“Any alternative that does not include substantial support for transit from toll revenue is a non-starter,” said M-NCPPC Vice-Chair Casey Anderson. “For months MDOT has been saying that revenue for transit would be included in the project, but they have yet to make any commitment to actually making it happen. Allowing buses to use the new toll lanes is not going to cut it ― this project needs to get serious about support for transit.”

Gus B. Bauman, a former chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board and an expert on national environmental law, said the planning commission’s objections to the state’s plan come as no surprise.

“Its objections to the Preferred Alternative mirrors what it has been saying to the State and [U.S. Department of Transportation], first privately and then publicly,” he said.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater and local planners have agreed to hire a mediator to resolve the many issues that have caused friction between State Highway and the bi-county planning commission, but Bauman said optimism about that effort should be tempered.

“A mediated resolution is certainly possible, but even if M-NCPPC reaches an accommodation with the State and U.S. DOT, given the range of environmental issues and the large number of objecting parties, litigation still appears in the cards,” the former chairman said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Washington, D.C. region had some of the worst commuter traffic in the nation. When he announced his plan to widen I-495 and I-270 three years ago, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said privately-funded “express toll lanes” would get traffic flowing and boost the region’s economy.

But critics have long argued that new lanes will draw more traffic, harming the environment in the process.

“We are in a climate emergency,” Anderson said. “MDOT should not ― and under the law, it cannot ― propose a major highway expansion without seriously considering alternatives with less damaging environmental impacts.”

Long-simmering tensions

MDOT has made numerous changes to the project since it was first unveiled to appease critics in Montgomery County. The state has agreed to prioritize the replacement of the American Legion Bridge, a bottleneck for both office-bound and home-bound commuters.

And it has deferred indefinitely the widening of I-495 between the I-270 eastern spur and the Prince George’s County border, a narrow, curvy stretch of road where sound walls are close to homes, Montgomery Blair High School, Holy Cross Hospital and other buildings.

In a recent interview, County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) praised Slater for being flexible, saying, “It’s definitely improved.”

But tension between the State Highway Administration and local planners has remained.

A 2020 pledge by top transportation officials to try to share key data — including proprietary “origin and destination” data owned by an MDOT consultant — has not borne fruit, M-NCPPC officials have said.

With environmental and homeowner groups virtually certain to try to block the project in court, Bauman said the failure to be more forthcoming could prove problematic.

“There is one thing federal judges in [National Environmental Policy Act] cases do not like, and that is when the agency is hiding the ball,” he said. “Because NEPA is all about full disclosure of relevant information.”

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