Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to widen portions of I-495 and I-270 utilizing toll lanes has drawn criticism. Credit: File photo

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. June 18 to correct the number of pages of appendices in the final environmental impact statement.

Culminating a review that initially got underway more than four years ago, state and federal authorities Friday released a “final environmental impact statement” (FEIS) needed for final design and construction work to commence on Gov. Larry Hogan’s controversial proposal to widen portions of I-495 and I-270 utilizing toll lanes.

The report, issued by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), is required by the National Environmental Policy Act for public construction projects of this scale before final federal approval can be granted. The FEIS itself runs nearly 500 pages, not including 74 appendices totaling more than 26,000 additional pages.

Agencies and individuals will have a 30-day “availability” period in which to comment on the final plan. That time frame was immediately criticized by the Sierra Club’s Maryland Chapter, which has been a leading critic of the project.

For their part, the authors of the report noted there had been a 123-day period for public comment after release of the initial “draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) in July 2020, followed by a 60-day comment period in the wake of the “supplemental draft environmental impact statement” (SDEIS) published last October.

The FEIS released Friday contains responses to more than 5,000 comments submitted by government officials and the public in response to the two earlier draft reports, some of these comments delivered at more than a half-dozen sessions held in person or virtually.

The so-called “managed lanes” project was first unveiled by Hogan in late 2017, utilizing a so-called “P3” – public-private partnership – in which the lanes would be designed, built, operated and maintained by a private firm with revenue derived from tolls. Once envisioned to encompass virtually all of I-495 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as I-270, the first phase of the project has been narrowed to include the American Legion Bridge, the westernmost section of I-495 leading to I-270, and north on I-270 to I-370 – at a cost that the FEIS puts at $3.75 billion to $4.25 billion.

The plan, dubbed in the FEIS as the “preferred alternative,” includes “the full replacement of the ALB [American Legion Bridge] with a new, wider bridge (not widening of the existing bridge) to accommodate the two HOT [high occupancy toll lanes] in each direction.”

The report added, “The existing bridge is nearly 60 years old and would need to be replaced sometime over the next decade regardless of” the current recommendation. (In response to public comments, state officials have “committed to constructing a shared use path on the east side of the ALB to support regional pedestrian and bicycle connectivity,” according to the FEIS.)

The proposal also includes adding two new HOT lanes in each direction on I-495 starting west of the interchange with Maryland Route 187 (Old Georgetown Road) and extending across the American Legion Bridge to the George Washington Memorial Parkway on the Virginia side. On I-270, the plan calls for converting the one current high occupancy vehicle lane to a HOT lane, on which “dynamic” tolls would fluctuate with the volume of traffic.

In addition, a new HOT lane would be built in each direction along I-270 to I-370 and on the eastern and western spurs that connect I-270 to I-495. High occupancy vehicles with three or more passengers, as well as public transit buses, would be allowed on these lanes toll-free.

Removed from the first phase of the managed lanes plan in May 2021 – nearly 10 months after the initial DEIS was issued – was widening of the section of the I-495 that runs through Bethesda and Silver Spring. The relatively narrow right-of-way on that section of the Beltway prompted an outcry from Montgomery County officials and local residents about the potential impact on public park land as well as private property.

“There is no action or no improvements included at this time on I-495 east of the I-270 east spur,” the FEIS noted, while keeping the door ajar to possible such action in the future.

“While the preferred alternative does not include improvements to the remaining parts of I-495 within the scope of the Study, improvements on the remainder of the interstate system may still be needed in the future and would advance separately, subject to additional environmental studies, analysis and collaboration with the public, stakeholders, and local agencies,” the report added.

The removal of the section of I-495 east of the I-270 spurs from the first phase of the project was largely seen as an effort to remove what had been the major political stumbling block.

Hogan, who proposed the I-495/I-270 project late in his first term, now has seven months left in office – and it’s unclear whether what remains of his original proposal will gain final federal approval and a go-ahead for construction by the time his term is up in January. Several of the Democrats vying to succeed him have expressed opposition to the project as now constituted.

The Hogan administration has tapped a consortium called Accelerate Maryland Partners as the private partner in the proposed P3 project. Led by Transurban, an Australian-based international firm that has built and operated managed lane projects in Virginia, the consortium has done preliminary design work pending letting of a construction contract.

But the consortium’s selection has become entangled in a lawsuit brought by one of the losing bidders – a rival consortium with two Spanish firms as the chief partners.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club Maryland Chapter said in a press release that it is “currently raising funds for the legal work to fight the project.”

Said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club: “Over the next 30 days, we will be looking closely at how this report addresses our previous comments, submitted on behalf of over 50 groups and the city of Rockville. We continue to urge the Hogan administration and elected leaders to reject this fundamentally flawed plan and instead work towards equitable and sustainable multimodal transportation solutions that address congestion and tackle the climate crisis instead of perpetuating it.”

Montgomery County elected officials critical of the Hogan plan also have focused on what they see as a lack of emphasis on mass transit. In response, the FEIS noted that MDOT officials had “established a Transit Work Group to further explore opportunities for new or expanded transit
service on managed lanes.” The report also said MDOT officials had worked to accommodate “direct and indirect connections” from the proposed HOT lanes to the Shady Grove and Twinbrook Metro stations as well as transit centers in Rockville and at Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda.

In the FEIS, state and federal officials attempted to respond to continuing questions about the underlying need for the project – and how much it will speed up traffic.

As critics have raised the issue of short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on commuting patterns, the FEIS contended that “while congestion decreased significantly on I-495 and I-270 at the onset of the pandemic in Spring 2020, significant congestion had returned to the study area by November 2021, approaching pre-pandemic levels.

“In the long-term, there is uncertainty surrounding forecasts for post-pandemic traffic levels and transit use and there is no definitive model to predict how or if changes to mobility patterns during the pandemic will affect long-term traffic projections,” the report said, while adding that an evaluation conducted by agencies involved in the FEIS “confirmed that the project would still be needed, even if long-term effects of the pandemic were in the high impact range resulting in less traffic demand than originally projected.”

With regard to future traffic congestion, the report’s traffic analysis acknowledged, “Congestion would still be present during the [p.m.] peak period on I-270 northbound and the I-495 inner loop in the design year of 2045, due to downstream bottlenecks outside of the preferred alternative limits” – the section where toll lanes would not be added. But the FEIS added that “it would not get worse due to implementing the preferred alternative.”

The traffic analysis said the HOT lanes “are now projected to achieve the desired speeds of 45 miles per hour or better during the peak hours” in 2045. It added that the “projected operations on the inner loop of I-495 show an improvement” in the latest report over the calculations in the SDEIS issued in October. At that time, the average speed in the “general purpose” lanes where tolls would not be levied was estimated at 7 miles per hour, the FEIS showed them rising to 15 miles per hour.

However, Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and a longtime critic of the project, questioned the veracity of the traffic modeling.

Ross cited estimates of travel time on the inner loop of I-495 from Old Georgetown Road to Georgia Avenue during the peak of the evening rush hour. Ross said the SDEIS issued last fall had put the time for this trip at 35.5 minutes if the project was not built, but that the estimate had dropped to 22.1 minutes in the FEIS issue Friday.

If the project is built, the SDEIS put the trip along the same stretch during the evening rush hour at 23.7 minutes, Ross said – adding that the estimate had dropped to 18.6 minutes in the FEIS, according to data in one of its appendices.

“They were telling us before that [building] it was going to improve times by almost 12 minutes – now they’re saying three and a half minutes.” Ross said. “This confirms there was something seriously wrong with the model in the SDEIS – but they don’t tell you what was wrong, and they don’t tell you how they fixed it.

“If they wrote 26,000 pages, it’s not like they didn’t have room to explain this,” he gibed.

Louis Peck, a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine, can be reached at: lou.peck@bethesdamagazine.com.
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