Open Letter to Comptroller About Toll Lane Expansion
Dear Comptroller Peter Franchot,
It is disappointing that you are moving away from your commitment not to approve the I-495 & I-270 expansion before the final environmental review is complete. Here’s why we say this.
On June 5, 2019, after designating the I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study project, a public-private partnership, with your Board of Public Works swing vote, you gave your word as follows:
“The project will not be approved by this Board until the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review – which includes the official Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – is complete.”
Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Greg Slater gave similar assurances to the General Assembly, even after the project was changed in a Jan. 8, 2020, meeting where you were again the swing vote.
Yet now it seems you will vote to approve a contract with the selected developer for this project prior to completion of the NEPA review, a process which includes issuance of the Final Environmental Impact statement and Record of Decision.
This is the reverse of what you led the public to expect. As transit advocate Ben Ross states, the decision to sign a contract with the selected developer before the FEIS and Record of Decision shows “that the [Environmental Impact Statement] process is a facade. They haven’t yet considered the 3,000 public comments they got — many of which are very serious and detailed — and they’re locking in the decision …”
Further, you and others, including Roger Berliner, have recently suggested that the Beltway expansion east of Old Georgetown Road is not really on the table any longer. But that could only be the case if the no-build option for those phases is reflected in the NEPA documentation (including the FEIS and Record of Decision). The same currently informal understanding would also need to be formalized in RFPs and contracting documents so that the developer would not have right of first refusal on future phases.
It is important that your promise be kept so that your word can be trusted. It is also important because there is too much at stake for short cuts on a 70-mile project for four new toll lanes that will plant dozens of flyovers and off ramps on major roads and forever change neighborhoods in Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George’s counties. That change will include traffic back-ups on local connecting roads caused by the inevitable increase in the number of vehicles that will travel on the expanded highways.
Let’s focus on what is at stake.
The many hidden costs of this project will fall on all Maryland taxpayers for 50+ years, not just taxpayers in Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George’s counties. These costs include relocation costs for 70 miles of water and sewer pipes, which the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission estimated at up to $2 billion, the costs of other utility relocations, a project subsidy of an estimated $482 million (according to the DEIS), and the ongoing future costs associated with 30 compensation and relief events listed in the P3 agreement term sheet (pages 13-16). Add on top of that stormwater mitigation expenses associated with 550 new acres of impervious surface that affected counties and cities will have to pay plus loss of 1,550 acres of forest canopy, all in a climate marked by increasing weather extremes and flood events.
Study after study has shown that expanding highways attracts more drivers, which means traffic congestion will occur again in the near future after billions of dollars have been wasted on road construction. This money could be spent more productively on expanding transit. And the increasing number of vehicles that would use the expanded highways will be generating increasing amounts of climate-damaging greenhouse gases and health-damaging air pollution.
As currently designed, this proposal disproportionately impacts communities of color and this must be addressed, minimized and avoided. The original Beltway bisected several then thriving African-American communities, including Gibson Grove and Carsondale. Its route through Prince George’s County currently impacts a community in which 86% identify as minority race or ethnicity.
Environmental justice communities will face disproportionate adverse impacts of this highway widening plan, including displacement, loss of property value and impacts on transfer of generational wealth. The project also has the potential to cause significant displacements of lower-income residents in market affordable housing along the I-270 corridor between I-370 and I-70.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s so-called “voluntary new lanes,” otherwise known as “Lexus lanes” or “luxury lanes,” will have high tolls that increase across the board at a rate of 2.1% annually plus the local Consumer Price Index every year (using 2021 as the benchmark year). The Rockville mayor and council have pointed out: “The proposed tolls will be unsustainable for those who have moved outside the Beltway to find more affordable homes. The exorbitant cost of tolls at peak periods, which are expected to be $2 per mile for a 25-mile stretch during rush hour, and an average of $0.77 per mile for other times, is simply unaffordable for most regional commuters. This does not support social equity, as required by NEPA, and is totally unacceptable.”
Similarly unacceptable is that the general purpose lanes will be less safe than the managed lanes, because the toll structure for trucks will concentrate big rigs in the general purpose lanes. The toll lanes will in essence not just allow the wealthy a faster ride but will lock in separate but unequal access to a safer commute.
Contrary to the representations being made that all general purpose lanes will remain as such, two GP lanes (one in each direction, GP for 21 hours a day) will be converted to toll lanes on I-270. That means capacity is being taken away from the GP lanes that the public has already paid for and being given to the private sector to charge tolls on. The residents on the northern stretch of I-270 may have a permanent bottleneck where eight lanes would funnel into two if their phase (Phase 1 North) ends up not being built.
Also contrary to what we’ve been told, an improvement in GP lane speed is unlikely because constructing the managed lanes will shift traffic from the mid-peak into the peak hours, and the GP lanes will be just as congested during the peak hours as they would have been otherwise. The foundational premise of this project is that extreme congestion in the GP lanes is needed to justify the high tolls that will be required to fund the project.
Another major concern is that the way the state has undertaken the solicitation process with the private developer has left MDOT minimal negotiating leverage. By not doing a public sector comparator and planning to give Transurban the phase contract and rights of first refusal for all future phases of the project (for a $145 million fee), there will be no real competition on any future phase of this project. This situation will allow costs to balloon on the next governor’s watch. Without a public sector comparator, there is weak negotiation leverage before and almost no leverage after the first contract is signed. Industry and Virginia officials explain this in various articles.
Lastly, P3s bring many challenges along with private capital, as has been learned in Virginia and more recently with Maryland’s Purple Line. The selected private developer, toll giant Transurban, has quite a troubled record. Check out what’s happened in Sydney, Australia, Virginia, or Maryland.
Why should this matter?
Problems for this locally unwanted project are easily foreseeable. A federal Executive Order that may have facilitated this project has been revoked. A protest by a losing bidder is already slowing the process. Lawsuits are coming. This project’s days of ignoring local stakeholders and state and federal laws are numbered.
Furthermore, the downsides of this project will happen on your watch if you become governor, including the delays, the new exorbitant tolls, the shock of removal of 1,500 acres of tree canopy alongside I-495 and I-270. The years of traffic backups and construction pain of this project will be the next governor’s albatross to bear. P3s and asset recycling excite some, but ask those with longer experience.
We hope it is not too much to ask to continue to keep your word, be fiscally responsible to the state and its taxpayers, and let the environmental review process be completed before signing a risky, premature contract with a developer. It is still very possible to be fiercely pro-consumer and pro-construction jobs providing union wages with less damaging projects, state of good repair projects, and transit investment that the current federal administration is keen to support.
We have repeatedly offered a more sustainable, more equitable and more effective solution but have been repeatedly rebuffed by MDOT and Gov. Hogan. Our solution involves a rail alignment on a rebuilt American Legion Bridge and focuses growth at the region’s Metro and Purple Line stations, especially the 15 stations in Prince George’s County, combined with more transit and demand management measures like parking pricing and employer transit benefits. This would not only reduce vehicle trips and vehicle miles traveled overall, it would even out flows on the Beltway, and address the longstanding economic and racial inequity that has led to too few jobs in Prince George’s County.
In contrast, Lexus lanes and continued congestion in the general purpose lanes would continue to tax Prince George’s residents who have some of the longest commutes in the region. The toll lane project would lock in regional racial inequality while our alternative addresses it with an effective solution.
Thank you for reflecting on this message, and if you see fit, responding to it.
–MARYLAND ADVOCATES FOR SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORTATION
Maryland Advocates for Sustainable Transportation is a coalition of over 20 advocate groups concerned about Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to expand I-495 and I-270. It supports transportation solutions that effectively address the climate crisis and transportation problems to create sustainable and connected communities.