Interstate 495 at Sligo Creek Park Credit: Photo from Montgomery Planning

Montgomery County officials are pressing the Maryland Department of Transportation to allow more public comment time on an 18,000-page report on a proposed I-495/I-270 widening project.

“If a constituent wishes to skim through this document in 90 days that you’ve allotted them, you would have to read 200 pages per day for 90 days,” Montgomery County Council Member Tom Hucker told MDOT officials Monday.

Members of the County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee and County Executive Marc Elrich want the state to extend the 90-day public comment period.

The state released an 18,000-page draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on the I-495/I-270 proposal on July 10.

Hucker (D-Silver Spring) is the chair of the County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee. He spoke during a virtual session in which he and other committee members peppered MDOT officials with questions.

The questions ranged from the cost of relocating Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) water and sewer lines along the route of the “managed lanes” project to possible fallout from cost overruns plaguing construction of the light-rail Purple Line.

MDOT officials spent about half of Monday’s 75-minute hearing summarizing the DEIS. But they provided few definitive answers to questions from the council committee.

Like the Purple Line, the I-495/I-270 project would be built as a public-private partnership (P3), in which a private consortium finances, designs, builds, operates and maintains it.

Revenue from toll lanes constructed adjacent to the existing highways would underwrite the cost, although the DEIS suggests a public subsidy might be required depending on construction and interest costs.

In a press release shortly before the start of Monday’s hearing, Elrich pointed to a letter he sent MDOT Secretary Gregory Slater late last week asking that the current 90-day public comment period for the I-495/I-270 project be extended “to at least 120 days (preferably longer).”

Elrich’s letter follows a similar one this month from U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park and Anthony Brown of Prince George’s County, seeking an extension beyond the current deadline of Oct. 8.

“Are you considering extending this deadline?” Council Member Hans Riemer (D-Takoma Park) a Transportation and Environment Committee member, asked Lisa Choplin, director of MDOT’s I-495/I-270 P3 office on Monday.

Choplin said such a move was up to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

“As the lead federal agency, they are the only ones who can make a decision regarding [extending] the public comment period from 90 days to 120 days,” Choplin responded. She added: “They are aware of the significant concern that has been raised regarding the comment period time frame.”

Hucker later pressed Choplin again, asking: “Are you joining our elected senators and congressmen in asking for an extension of the public comment period for a document that is 15 times the length of ‘War and Peace’?”

The response was short of a full-throated endorsement. “We have stated the extension would not have a negative impact as far as we are concerned. But ultimately, it’s got to be their decision,” replied Choplin, referring to the FHWA.

Hucker called the current hearing schedule on the DEIS — four virtual hearings starting in August and two in-person hearings in September — “unworkable.”

“School is starting up soon,” he said. “We’re currently in a pandemic. MDOT must move back the hearing schedule and offer many more opportunities to collect public feedback virtually.”

Hucker and another committee member, Council Member Evan Glass (D-Silver Spring), pressed Choplin on lessons learned from the Purple Line experience. The private consortium building that project has threatened to walk away in a dispute with MDOT regarding cost overruns exceeding exceed 25 percent of the $2 billion cost of construction.

“It appears there are some construction firms that are currently working on the Purple Line right now that are also finalists for this [I-495/I-270] project, which leads me to have less confidence than I might already have had on this,” Glass said.

MDOT late on Friday announced it had placed all four “private teams” that earlier expressed interest in the project on the “short list” of firms allowed to bid on the first phase of the I-495/I-270 widening.

A decision on who will build that phase — which runs from the American Legion Bridge along I-495 to the “Western Spur” of I-270, then up I-270 to I-370 — is expected next spring, after a final environmental impact statement is issued.

Glass was apparently referring to Meridiam Capital Express, a lead project developer on one of the four teams seeking to bid on the I-495/I-270 project. Meridiam is also part of the consortium building the Purple Line.

“P3s in Maryland don’t have a good reputation right now, so can you explain how this is different?” Glass asked Choplin.

Choplin said her office was not involved in the Purple Line project and consequently “cannot speak directly to those issues that are at hand.”

But she said the P3 process foreseen for the I-495/I-270 project is “a different structure than in the Purple Line.”

She said the process will involve what she described as a “predevelopment agreement” to ensure that “more design coordination, analysis, and mitigation of risks will be done” in advance of the solicitation for bids.

Riemer raised another major cost controversy — estimates by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission that relocating water and sewer lines could mean a $2 billion cost for a project already pegged at as much as $11 billion.

Choplin said MDOT held its first “formal partnering meeting” with WSSC two weeks ago.

She added: “We, as well as WSSC, are committed to working through this process with them.”

She echoed recent statements by Slater that “the exact scope and cost of utility relocations has not been determined. It’s way too early in the process at this point.”

Asked whether the cost of relocating WSSC lines had been taken into account by the state in proposing the I-495/I-270 widening, Choplin said estimates of $9 billion to $11 billion for the overall project “did incorporate the costs not only of WSCC relocations, but also other utilities.”

Hucker noted that both the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils wrote to MDOT saying “that we were not prepared to raise the [water and sewer] rates on residents due to their utility relocation costs.”

Hucker also pressed MDOT on whether the need for the project had been altered by COVID-19 pandemic. In its entirety, the would extend the full length of I-495 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The DEIS “does little to address the realities we’re in due to COVID-19,” Hucker said. “Traffic patterns have changed dramatically. The way we work will be impacted going forward.”

Choplin replied: “We respect and certainly acknowledge the changes that have occurred since March, but we’ve got to look at the long-term solutions. … The study as well as the program is looking at addressing long-term congestion [that], with adding population to the region, will need to be addressed one way or another.”

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has estimated the population of the greater Washington region will grow by 23 percent over the next quarter of a century, reaching more than 6.9 million people by 2045.

Hucker’s most pointed criticism of MDOT came at the outset of Monday’s hearing. Echoing assessments last week by the staff of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, he slammed the DEIS for not including an alternative proposed by county officials to route traffic coming from the north along the Intercounty Connector (ICC).

That proposal was designed to avoid widening of a relatively narrow stretch of I-495 through Bethesda and Silver Spring during a future phase of the project — in an effort to preempt the taking of private property and park land.

County officials contend that MDOT rejected their alternative after making changes to it — including a widening of I-95 between the ICC and I-495 — not included in the original proposal.

“We did not include the I-95 segment in our recommendation, and so to me, it feels beyond cynical and disappointing that MDOT would alter our proposal and then use that … as the reason given for not including our well-considered proposal in their analysis,” Hucker charged. “Blithely refusing to study alternatives put forward in good faith by the elected leadership and the professional transportation planners who work for the very residents whose lives will be greatly disrupted by this project is the most cynical type of government decision-making. It’s really offensive.”

MDOT officials did not address the ICC issue at Monday’s briefing.