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Energy & Environment Transportation

4 groups file federal lawsuit to block state’s Capital Beltway, I-270 toll lane project

Photo by Angela Breck.

By Dick Uliano

Environmentalists and historic preservation groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Maryland on Tuesday in a bid to block financing and construction of the long-planned project to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 with the addition of toll lanes.

Several groups have joined in the latest challenge to the project, which has been one of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s top priorities for easing traffic congestion between Montgomery and Northern Virginia over the American Legion Bridge.

The lawsuit charges that there are deficiencies in the environmental review, which won federal approval for the project to move forward.

“The Maryland Department of Transportation tried to take shortcuts and circumvent really critical studies it needed to do,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The lawsuit alleges that the expanded highways would likely increase concentrations of fine particulate matter, harmful to heart and lungs. The suit said the risk is especially high in neighborhoods in Gaithersburg, with high proportions of minority and low-income residents.

“We’re asking the court to vacate the current environmental review and send MDOT back to the drawing board to do this environmental review the way it should have been done from the start,” Tulkin said.

The Maryland Department of Transportation said the project is needed to ease congestion in traffic moving between Montgomery County over the American Legion Bridge into Northern Virginia.

The lawsuit also charges that the project threatens Plummers Island, a renowned botanical research site on the eastern side of the bridge.

“The project would significantly impact Plummers Island, which is one of the most scientifically studied natural places in the country,” Tulkin said.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is party to the lawsuit, in a bid to protect the island and also Morningstar Moses Cemetery, an African American cemetery of unmarked graves in Cabin John.

“They only studied a small, narrow portion, which they said they could avoid. They did not actually study the full area, where burials are likely to have taken place,” Tulkin said.

Also party to the lawsuit is the Friends of Moses Hall, a group formed to protect the cemetery, which was once part of the African American community of Gibson Grove, which was taken by eminent domain to build the Capital Beltway.

“Before going any further with this project, the state must account for and protect the remains in Morningstar Moses Cemetery,” said Diane Baxter, a board member of Friends of Moses Hall. “State officials have acknowledged the damage done to historic Black communities when the Beltway was built in the 1960s, but that hasn’t stopped them from moving to harm our community once again.”

The cemetery is the burial ground for Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 of the Ancient United Order of the Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters of Moses. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the threats to the Morningstar Moses Cemetery and Moses Hall site by the proposed Beltway project by naming it one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is also party to the lawsuit and is representing the plaintiffs in the suit. “Maryland residents are entitled to know the full story about this project before the state guarantees millions of dollars to a private company,” said Pete DeMarco, an attorney at NRDC. “The state and federal government must consider its true costs to health, equity, historic preservation, and the environment.”

As part of Maryland Matters’ content sharing agreement with WTOP, we feature this article from Dick Uliano. Click here for the WTOP News website. Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.