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Federal judge rules against activists seeking to block Capital Beltway project

Traffic along the inner-loop of the Capital Beltway at the American Legion Bridge. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

A federal judge Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental and preservation groups seeking to block a proposed expansion of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

U.S District Court Senior Judge Deborah K. Chasanow rejected a request for summary judgment sought by the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of Moses Hall, National Resources Defense Council, and the Northern Virginia Citizens Association. The groups filed suit to block the proposed but now stalled highway widening project.

“The Maryland Department of Transportation appreciates the court’s decision today,” a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Transportation said in a statement. “We will continue to work with community stakeholders and our local, state, and federal partners to advance the Moore-Miller Administration’s new path forward on this much-needed multi-modal transportation program for the American Legion Bridge and I-270 corridors.”

The original lawsuit filed in 2022 against the Maryland Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration sought to block the highway widening project first proposed by then-Gov. Larry Hogan (R) as a way of relieving traffic congestion.

Hogan proposed a multibillion-dollar public private partnership. The plan called for a consortium to build a new American Legion Bridge along with toll lanes to widen Maryland portions of the Capital Beltway as well as a portion of I-270.

“This is a disappointing outcome,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club of Maryland, one of the plaintiffs. “This project comes with real harms to people and the environment, and MDOT and FHWA ignored important aspects of that harm while reviewing the project.”

“But just because the court ruled against us doesn’t mean these issues can be swept aside,” said Tulkin. “The political leadership in Annapolis and the Federal Highway Administration should take a clear-eyed look at this project and correct the wrongs that we so clearly identified.”

Opponents argued that the Maryland Department of Transportation “cut corners” and failed to properly assess and disclose how the project would affect the area.

Included in the concerns were allegations that the widening would increase air pollution and disproportionately affect areas with high concentrations of minority and low-income residents.

Plaintiffs also raised concerns about the harm to Plummers Island. The renowned botanical research site is located on the eastern side of the American Legion Bridge.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation joined the lawsuit in an effort to protect both the island and the Morningstar Moses Cemetery, an African American cemetery of unmarked graves in Cabin John.

Chasanow, in her decision, ruled that the plaintiffs “have not demonstrated that defendants’ actions were arbitrary and capricious in their decision to approve the Preferred Alternative.”

She added that the plaintiffs also failed to demonstrate “that defendants have violated” federal environmental laws.

Chasanow ruled in favor of a cross complaint for summary judgment filed by the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to end the case.

Pete DeMarco, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the suit on behalf of the environmental and community groups, said Wednesday evening, “We’re reviewing the opinion and considering our options.”

Even with the ruling, the widening project remains at a standstill.

In 2023, Transurban, the Australia-based company tapped as the lead partner in the estimated $7.6 billion project withdrew.

Gov. Wes Moore (D) has made it clear since before he was sworn in that he sought a change of direction in the plan.

State transportation officials pressed forward last year with a series of open houses seeking public input. Even so, it is not clear how or when the project will proceed — something made murkier by a Purple Line transit project that continues to incur cost overruns and delays; Moore’s proposed resurrection of the Red Line transit project linking east and west Baltimore; and a more than $3 billion projected funding gap for transportation projects that have yet to include the proposed Baltimore project.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.


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Federal judge rules against activists seeking to block Capital Beltway project