We Have No ‘Houston’ Problem, Highway Backers Tell Buttigieg

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Backers of the Hogan administration’s plan to widen two Montgomery County highways sought to rebut criticism of the project from Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.).

The complaints from Brown were contained in an April 2 letter he sent to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

A week later, the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance sent the secretary their own correspondence, offering a very different perspective.

Brown’s letter urged Buttigieg to “reevaluate” the federal government’s role in the widening of Interstates 495 and 270 — and to consider restarting a time-consuming study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.

He alleged numerous “deficiencies” with the governor’s plan to add High Occupancy Toll lanes to the two roads — and he noted that federal transportation officials recently asked Texas to “pause” a controversial project in Houston, citing equity concerns.

But the SMTA told Buttigieg there are no similarities between the Montgomery project and the one in Lone Star State.

“The [Texas] I-45 project displaces 1,079 residences, including 486 public and low-income housing units (mostly inhabited by African American and Hispanic populations), 344 businesses, five places of worship and two schools,” the organization’s executive director, Edgar Gonzalez, wrote.

“In contrast, Phase 1 of the [Maryland] project displaces zero homes — minority or otherwise — zero businesses, zero places of worship and zero schools. There are no negative economic justice effects with the project.”

The letter also suggests that Brown — who lost the 2014 governor’s race to Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. — has little reason to be taking issue with the state’s plan, since his district lies well to the east.

“The limits of Congressman Brown’s District 4 are totally outside of the boundaries of Phase 1 of the project,” Gonzalez wrote.

Many Prince George’s and Anne Arundel commuters use the Beltway to get to jobs in Montgomery and Northern Virginia.

In a statement, Brown — the only Maryland lawmaker on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — defended his right to make his views known.

“Transportation and infrastructure projects are long term investments, that span across Administrations and even generations,” he wrote. “We are at a moment in history where we must make the right investments for the future. We owe it to taxpayers and our communities to ensure we are making smart investments that will yield benefits for years to come.”

“The deficiencies in the Hogan Administration’s approach to this project and community opposition are clear signals that more review is needed. Rather than steam rolling this project that will impact our communities for decades, let’s take a moment to see if this is the right thing to do,” he added.

While the SMTA rejected Brown’s claims, project opponents welcomed the lawmaker’s outreach to Buttigieg, whose 2020 presidential bid he supported.

Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D) noted that the federal government can decline to approve the project “on multiple grounds.”

“One is that they failed to avoid impacts as they are required to do,” he said. “Another is that it’s a large and staged single application so there’s no way to know the impacts of Phases 2 or 3…”

Some backers of Hogan’s proposed “public-private partnership” project believe it might have received a speedier approval from the federal government had President Trump been reelected.

It remains to be seen how the Biden administration approaches big-ticket transportation projects.

Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson thinks Brown’s plea to Buttigieg might strike a chord.

“It seems not just appropriate but almost incumbent on the new administration to think about whether it’s aligned with their idea of what makes good transportation policy,” he said in an interview. “I would sort of be surprised if they didn’t take a minute to think about whether this is something that this administration wants to support.”

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