Roger Berliner: Net Zero Expansion of American Legion Bridge and I-270 Is Within Reach

Net Zero Expansion
Traffic on the Capital Beltway near the American Legion Bridge. WTOP News photo by Dave Dildine.

As Josh Tulkin of the Sierra Club pointed out in his recent piece in Maryland Matters [“Will the Senate Co-Own Hogan’s Highway Boondoggle?” April 9], I was not a big fan of either the substance or the manner Gov. Larry Hogan and his team rolled out their initial plans to expand the Capital Beltway, I-270 and the American Legion Bridge. There had been no consultation with either Montgomery County or Prince George’s County prior to the big unveiling. If there had been, Montgomery County would have told them to forget the Beltway expansion.

It was, and is, a non-starter for so many reasons.

But to their credit, and to the credit of a new team led by Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Greg Slater, the Hogan administration appears to have learned from its mistakes. The Beltway (but for 495 west of the spur) is not part of the Phase 1 arrangement with the chosen Accelerate Maryland Partners; there is no discussion of it anymore by the Hogan team, and there really isn’t enough time before Hogan’s term ends to pursue it even if they wanted to.

It is dead. While we need to see some concrete proof of that, particularly since it is in the project currently subject to federal environmental review, all signs point that way.

Now we can properly focus on the core of what is left – expanding the American Legion Bridge and 270. The reality is that this plan is fundamentally consistent with what Montgomery County has sought for years.

Roger Berliner

The bridge and 270 are a nightmare and have been for far far too long, which is why we explicitly, repeatedly and publicly embraced high occupancy toll lanes and expanded capacity within the existing right of way. That is what is proposed … and more. The plan calls for a significant contribution to Montgomery County’s transit aspirations – $300 million (which must be front loaded); support for the county’s Vision Zero program; and a hiker/biker connection to the C&O Canal, to name just a few of the additional benefits promised.

There really is only one factor that has taken on even more urgency since Montgomery County has supported this expansion – climate.

MoCo has rightly declared that we are in a climate emergency. Expanding capacity will induce more trips, which will produce more carbon dioxide. That is a serious issue. Transportation generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions – and is the most difficult to tackle. But we can and should address this project’s emissions.

Maryland should seek to build the first net zero interstate highway expansion in the country. It can be done … and there is no better time to advance it.

We now have a president and U.S. secretary of Transportation whose simultaneous commitment to investing in infrastructure and reducing emissions should make the federal government a willing ally and financial partner in pursuit of this objective. The president’s most recent embrace of a 52% reduction in emissions by 2030 is as welcome as it is ambitious, and importantly, leaves little room for major projects requiring federal concurrence that add emissions.

The best means for achieving this result – “carbon offsets” – are actually pretty straightforward and currently used by the airlines and major corporations to offset their respective emissions. They involve real, tangible, incremental investments in renewable energy and trees, among other things, investments that would “offset” the project’s projected emissions. Importantly, these investments should be made in Montgomery County where the expansion will take place.

Finally, it is respectfully submitted that the state should add all electric vehicles (not hybrids) to those who access the toll lanes freely. Doing so would be a major incentive for our residents who travel down 270 and cross the American Legion Bridge to buy electric cars, a critically important objective in addressing our climate emergency.

In light of the protest over the award to Accelerate Maryland Partners by a competing bidder, the members of the Board of Public Works now have ample time to seriously consider and possibly embrace (1) requiring the partners, as part of its pre-development work, to provide a comprehensive analysis of what it will take to ensure that the expansion of the American Legion Bridge and 270 has a net zero impact on greenhouse gas emissions and, (2) to add all electric vehicles to the mix of those who get free access to the toll lanes.

Simultaneously, the governor and Secretary Slater should seek a meeting with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and pursue federal support, with the help of our extraordinary congressional delegation, to cover the incremental cost required to achieve a net zero impact.

A net zero expansion of the American Legion Bridge and 270 is within our collective reach. We should strive for nothing less.

–ROGER BERLINER

The writer is a nationally recognized energy lawyer, who served three terms on the Montgomery County Council from 2006-2018. He was the lead sponsor of more than two dozen environmental laws, led the council in adopting a BRT master plan, and was voted the region’s “outstanding leader” for his work to obtain dedicated funding for Metro.