The Maryland Department of Transportation has not been clear with the public about the highly controversial proposal to add private toll lanes to the eastern part of the Maryland Beltway.

In May of this year, MDOT abruptly announced it was removing that 30-mile portion from its I-495/I-270 toll lane plan. In June, the Regional Transportation Planning Board removed the entire toll-lane project from its long-range transportation plan due to heavy opposition.

But in July, the project was reinstated after multiple Transportation Planning Board members reversed course following an aggressive attack-ad campaign by the governor and MDOT’s threats to transportation projects in the counties of those who voted for the toll lanes’ removal.

Some Transportation Planning Board members cited the changes to the project as reason to allow the reduced-scale project back into the regional long-range transportation plan.

Lost in the drama and chaotic process (pages 57-58) is the fact that removing I-495 east of the eastern spur was a strategy to move the project forward, not part of the Hogan-MDOT-Transurban plan. Several agency officials with parkland concerns have indicated they would have been unable to concur with MDOT’s preferred project alternative if that segment had remained a part of it.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission expressed in a recent nonconcurrence letter its strong reservations about MDOT’s decision of “no action” rather than “no build” for the eastern I-495 segment, concerned that MDOT will use that wording to justify “less rigorous environmental review” of that segment in the future.

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On the day the segment’s removal from the recommended preferred alternative was announced, Gov. Larry Hogan stated in a press conference: “Our intention moving forward is it all has to get fixed or it’s not going to do much to solve the traffic. We just want to move forward with the bridge and then move on to the next step.”

So even on the day it was announced, the segment’s removal from the overall plan was basically disavowed.

Two days earlier, Comptroller Peter Franchot revealed that “east of 270 on 495” would be considered in “five or six years.”

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It will be considered then, he said, because it’s “very controversial [and] requires some parkland and some residences and eminent domain, and there’s a big hue and cry and uproar over there. … And, you know, we’ll be able to without completely turning the area on its head. We’re going to be able to test a properly drafted P3, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Even after the May reduction in project scope, the selected Transurban-led consortium Accelerate Maryland Partners still showed in its marketing materials the rest of I-495 as “future phases.”

Encircling the entire Beltway with toll lanes around D.C. has been Transurban’s plan for many years, and remains so.

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A Sept. 11 article in The Australian states “delivering the first section of the road also sets [Transurban] up to win future stages of the project, valued at another $US9 billion to $US11 billion over the next decade or so. That would give Transurban a continuous network of roads through Maryland and Virginia that encircle Washington DC.”

MDOT’s meaningless renaming of the toll lanes as “op lanes” in September provides the most recent confirmation of the state’s plans. Right on the new home page is this map (at right) — which is different from what is shown in the latest NEPA documents — clearly showing I-495 east of the I-270 eastern spur as “future phases.”

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According to the contract signed in August, Transurban is expected to pay a “development rights fee” for right of first refusal on future phases, and at that point, I-495 toll lanes to the east could be just an environmental review and BPW vote away.

Dynamically priced private toll lanes on the topside and eastern part of I-495 become increasingly likely if the state signs a construction contract with Transurban in 2022 as planned. The last public comment period on the project between now and then closes on Nov. 15.

The call-in public hearing date is Nov. 1 for the toll lane project Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS), and the public comment period remains scheduled to close on Nov. 15, despite extension requests from over 40 civic and environmental groups, the mayor and council of Rockville, the Montgomery County Council, and U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Reps. Anthony Brown and Jamie Raskin.

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MDOT’s bait-and-switch techniques and mixed messages have confused both people and agencies, yet these matters have wide-reaching implications for the region. The 30-mile segment of I-495 east of I-270 is not in the first phase of the project, but remains in the overall toll lane plan. Make your voice heard!

Josh Tulkin is director of the Maryland Sierra Club.

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