Responding to public pressure, state officials announced late Thursday that the public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the I-495/I-270 widening project has been extended 30 days.
The original 90-day comment period will now be lengthened to 120 days, moving the deadline from Oct. 8 to Nov. 9. The comment period began with the release of the DEIS on July 10.
Numerous elected officials — including U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Takoma Park, and County Executive Marc Elrich — complained that 90 days was insufficient to review a document that, including 19 technical reports and appendices, totals more than 19,600 pages.
The DEIS was released last month after more than two years of work and study. Environmental assessments are required by federal law on all major infrastructure projects.
At issue is a controversial proposal by Gov. Larry Hogan, first unveiled in late 2017, to widen I-495 and I-270 via a so-called public-private partnership (P3). A consortium of private firms would build, operate and maintain, as well as finance, the project, with the bulk of its revenue derived from newly constructed “managed lanes” in which tolls would be charged.
Much of the controversy has emanated from plans to expand a relatively narrow stretch of I-495 through Bethesda and Silver Spring, where road widening — according to the DEIS — could result in the loss of more than 300 acres of private property and public parkland.
Officials of the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) had been saying for the past month that they support extending the comment period — but insisted they needed the concurrence of the Federal Highway Administration before they could do so.
“Extending the comment period to 120 days ensures the public has ample opportunity to review and provide feedback on the DEIS,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said in a press release. “The extension also supports our number one priority during the COVID-19 emergency: the health and safety of the public and our team.”
The announcement of the public comment extension came more than halfway through the original 90-day comment period, and after three of six scheduled public hearings on the DEIS have been held. Videos of three virtual hearings that took place can be viewed at: https://495-270-p3.com/your-participation/past-public-outreach.
MDOT SHA did not announce any further hearings in conjunction with the 30-day comment extension. However, the postponement now gives Elrich and the Montgomery County Council, which announced plans to submit a joint county response to the DEIS, another month to do so.
Not addressed in the MDOT SHA announcement Thursday were recent demands from Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Chair Casey Anderson and a coalition of environmental and citizens groups that the clock for the public comment period be restarted.
Anderson, at a virtual hearing last week, complained that MDOT SHA modified the DEIS without notice after its initial July 10 release — causing many to download and review an document that was now outdated. The changes resulted in adding more than 1,700 pages to a document that originally totaled a little more than 17,900 pages.
MDOT SHA contend that the only change made in the DEIS involved a section of the voluminous document that initially failed to upload properly online and was fixed the day following the initial release date.
“On July 11 … it was noted that appendices to 2 of the 19 technical reports, the Alternatives Technical Report and Traffic Technical Report, were not immediately uploaded,” MDOT spokesman Terry Owens said in an email this week. “On July 11 … less than 24 hours from the original DEIS uploading, the missing appendices were uploaded to the website.”
He added: “The full set of documents was available at the DEIS viewing locations on iPads starting on July 10, in hard copy at two of the MDOT SHA DEIS viewing locations also starting on July 10, and the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency website noted in the Federal Register.”
Reacting to the 30-day addition, Anderson, in a statement posted to Twitter, wrote: “We appreciate the extension of the comment period. … We have a lot of concerns and this is at least a step toward acknowledging the need for a process that allows a reasonable opportunity for input.”
In addition to the I-495/I-270 website, the DEIS is available for review in hard copy — with the technical reports available via iPads — at several MDOT SHA offices throughout Montgomery County.
It also is available at the West Bethesda and Rockville post offices and trailers outside several libraries, including include the Chevy Chase, Kensington and Potomac library branches, as well as the Davis Library in North Bethesda.
Two virtual hearings on the DEIS took place last week, with a third held this past Tuesday. A fourth will be held on Sept. 3. Those seeking to participate can sign up online.
In addition, two in-person hearings have been scheduled. The first is Tuesday in Prince George’s County. The other is on Sept. 10 at the Hilton Executive Meeting Center in Rockville. Those who want to testify at the in-person hearings must register by calling 833-858-5960.
Those not testifying at the virtual and in-person public hearings can do so online or by emailing their comments to MLS-NEPA-P3@mdot.maryland.gov. Comments can be mailed to: Lisa B. Choplin, Director, I-495 & I-270 P3 Office, Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, 707 N. Calvert St., Mail Stop P-601, Baltimore, MD 21202.