A map of the areas impacted by the current proposed road widening/toll lanes project, shown in dark blue. Previously, all of the light blue was also included. Credit: Maryland Department of Transportation

This story was updated at 9:05 a.m. April 25, 2022, to correct some details and add some comments.

Regional transportation officials said Wednesday that an advocacy group was mistaken in its claim about the latest version of the I-270 and I-495 widening project.

On Wednesday, the Maryland Sierra Club put out a news release alleging that a regional transportation planning board has revived the widening of the entire Capital Beltway project. The organization said it found the latest version by reviewing Visualize 2045, a long-term planning document by the Transportation Planning Board. 

But the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board (TPB) said the Sierra Club is incorrect — the approval of studies and analysis for federal funding only applies to the state’s current proposal. That includes reconstructing the American Legion Bridge, and toll lanes from there north to the I-270 spur, and north along I-270, the board wrote in a statement.

“Only the segments identified for construction were included in the region’s air quality conformity analysis,” the board’s statement says. “The segments that reference the study are listed for informational purposes. It is worth noting that the eastern segment of the I-495 managed lanes project was downgraded to a study by MDOT prior to the June and July 2021 TPB votes.”

Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said the organization was happy that the TPB clarified its draft plan.

“We are pleased that the TPB has now clarified that the draft plan does not include any money for construction of toll lanes on the Beltway east of I-270 and has promised to make appropriate corrections in the draft plan,” Tulkin wrote.

The Sierra Club identified items in Visualize 2045, a long-range regional plan, that they said indicated that the Transportation Planning Board intended to include the entire Capital Beltway east of the I-270 spur in Maryland for review for federal funds. 

The group’s statement says this contradicted a vote in July, when the board voted to include the project in Visualize 2045. The Maryland Department of Transportation already had changed the project to only include the American Legion Bridge replacement, and toll lanes from there along I-495 to the spur, and north up I-270.

In a statement Wednesday, the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) wrote that the July vote was to approve funding for studies of the entire Beltway for the project, but not construction.

The Sierra Club, however, pointed to page 95 in Appendix B of the plan, claiming that the entire Beltway was now approved for an air-quality conformity analysis, a precursor to including it in the project. 

That analysis was the focus of a vote by the TPB in July. The TPB had to approve an analysis for the project to be eligible for federal funding.

The TPB staff wrote in its statement on Wednesday that the vote in July only applied to the analysis of the project outlined by the Maryland Department of Transportation for funding purposes and was not a sign of a greater scope in the plans.

The Maryland Department of Transportation announced in May that a large portion of the Capital Beltway would be removed from the project. 

“The funding amount listed is for the planning, preliminary engineering, and design of the southern segment that has been approved for construction and funding for studying the eastern segment that has NOT been approved for construction,” the planning board wrote in the statement. “The TPB understands that the description for this listing does not make this clear. For the final documentation, the TPB will work with MDOT to clarify the description for this listing on page 95 of Appendix B of the plan.”

The widening project is part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to add toll lanes along I-270 and parts of the beltway, and rebuild the American Legion Bridge.

Hogan has said the plan is needed to reduce traffic congestion in the I-270 corridor and the Beltway. Opponents say it will not bring the necessary relief in the long term, and that money should be directed toward transit projects and other solutions.

Elected officials contacted by Bethesda Beat on Wednesday were confused about the Sierra Club’s assertion and what it meant for the overall project, before the TPB released its own comments and clarification. 

Del. Marc Korman (D-Bethesda), who voted against including the project in Visualize 2045 last July, wrote in a text message on Wednesday — before the TPB’s comments were released — that he wanted to give the staff a chance to respond to the Sierra Club’s claims.

But he said he opposes the overall toll-lane project, including potentially including the Capital Beltway through Silver Spring and east through Maryland.

He was skeptical that the public-private partnership would make money for public investments like bus projects. Korman noted that the General Assembly approved $63 million in capital funding and $27 million in continuous funding for bus rapid transit projects this session.

“We are not waiting for magic money to fund the priority projects Montgomery county has identified … most of these road [public-private partnerships] actually require tax dollars to be invested, not vice versa,” Korman wrote. 

County Council Member Hans Riemer brokered a deal with Hogan’s administration in which at least $145 million of the revenue from the toll lanes would go toward transit projects in Montgomery County, in exchange for a majority of the County Council’s support.

Riemer said in an interview on Wednesday that he opposed any widening of the Capital Beltway, east of the I-270 spur through Silver Spring and continuing eastward.

County Executive Marc Elrich opposes the project, and also voted no in July.

He said there still are many studies and steps before any project — with the entire Capital Beltway or not — is approved.

“There’s going to be a new governor, and this is another reason to create a solid blue wall over things like that,” Elrich said, a reference to electing Democrats who oppose the Beltway widening project entirely.

The TPB is taking comments on Visualize 2045, which was released on April 1. The comment period closes May 1.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com