State transportation officials held a public workshop in Gaithersburg on Thursday to discuss traffic improvements along I-270. Credit: Photo by Kate Masters

Commenters were largely ambivalent about the prospect of widening lanes on the northern section of I-270, the focus of a Thursday night workshop with state transportation officials.

The state has hosted public workshops in Frederick and Montgomery counties over the past two weeks as part of a study to relieve congestion along the travel corridor.

I-270 is one section of a sprawling traffic relief plan Gov. Larry Hogan first proposed in 2017. The proposal centers on adding toll lanes to the state’s most congested highways, which Hogan has said will be funded entirely by private companies.

“The average commuter in the Maryland-Capital region loses 87 hours a year sitting in traffic,” Lisa Choplin, the director for the state’s public-private partnership program, said at the workshop on Thursday.

Congestion along I-270 is expected to worsen over the next two decades as the population and job opportunities in both counties grow.

But residents at the final workshop in Gaithersburg were skeptical that adding toll lanes was the best way to improve traffic on I-270. During a question-and-answer session with state officials, several wondered whether the state considered mass transit solutions along the corridor.

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“There was a slide up there that said the last [Maryland Transit Administration] study for mass transit such as MARC and commuter buses had been done in 2002,” said Gaithersburg resident Michelle Fish. “Is there any hope of looking at that again?”

Choplin responded that there were a “whole slew of issues” with a MARC or rails option, including financing the project. State transportation officials have repeatedly emphasized that the state lacks the funding to pay for major new projects, including mass transit and road improvements.

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s capital budget for major projects over the next six years is $1.1 billion, according to the state’s presentation on Thursday. Lane-widening alone is projected to cost $9 billion.

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The department is also facing a decrease in funding due to declining transit and gas tax revenues, state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn told Montgomery County leaders this month.

But for Fish, who doesn’t own a car, the added lanes “won’t help at all,” she said after the meeting.

She and Olivia Bartlett, a grassroots organizer for the social advocacy group Do The Most Good, worried that added toll lanes would reduce traffic for wealthy residents while leaving others stranded in the same congestion — without the option of expanded mass transportation.

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“That’s why they’ve been dubbed the ‘luxury lanes,’” Bartlett said. “If you look at the tolls in Virginia, you’re looking at $15, $20 just to get home.”

Even residents who supported adding lanes along the highway wondered if the state would consider scaling down the project. Charles Gordon, another Gaithersburg resident, asked Choplin if MDOT would consider an alternative to add a single lane in each direction.

“I think it would reduce a lot of the political opposition to a bigger project,” he said after the meeting. “If you add a single lane in each direction, it seems like it would reduce the cost and the environmental impact.”

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Local opposition to the first phase of the state’s lane-widening proposal, which involves widening I-495 and the southern section of I-270, has been forceful since Hogan announced the plans two years ago.

Relations between state planning officials and Montgomery County policymakers have grown even more strained since Hogan announced a plan to widen the American Legion Bridge, which would expedite toll-lane construction along the northern stretch of the Capital Beltway.

This week, a Montgomery County planning official suggested suing the state over its I-495/I-270 managed lanes study.

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On Wednesday, MDOT officials emphasized they were still in the preliminary phases of considering improvements to the northern part of I-270. Part of the investigation process involves getting opinions from residents, Choplin said.

“We’re here for your feedback,” she told attendees of the public workshop. “We’re not coming here with any preconceived notions about the project.”