The current scope of the I-270 and I-495 widening project proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan's administration. Credit: Maryland Department of Transportation

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 14, 2022, to correct the amount of money involved in the deal between the state and County Council Member Hans Riemer, providing for transit projects in the county.

The fate of Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to widen parts of I-270 and I-495 — along with replacing the American Legion Bridge — is uncertain now that the Federal Highway Administration has announced a delay of its review of an environmental impact statement. 

But it’s possible the project will soon be headed to court as both Hogan and some opponents of the proposal are threatening to sue for various reasons.

With roughly five months left before Hogan leaves office, time is winding down for the project to ultimately be approved. In order for the project to be eligible for federal funding, the Federal Highway Administration needs to approve the environmental impact statement. And the project still needs to clear more hurdles at the state’s Board of Public Works —  whose members are Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck E. Davis.

Part of the project includes approving a final contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners. That’s the consortium of private companies tasked with working with the state to execute the project. 

Initially, the project proposed widening all of I-495 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as I-270, using four toll lanes, two lanes in each direction. But the Maryland Department of Transportation announced last year that the first phase had been narrowed to include only 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 estimated to be $3.75 billion to $4.25 billion.

Hogan threatened to sue the Federal Highway Administration last week because of its actions, but as of Friday, no suit had been filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland. Spokespeople within his office could not immediately be reached for comment via email or by phone Thursday.

Josh Tulkin is director of the Maryland Sierra Club, an environmental organization that opposes the project because of its potential impact on the environment, and because the group’s members believe it won’t solve the issue of traffic congestion in the long-term. 

He said in an interview that Hogan’s description of project opponents as “pro-traffic activists” and his lawsuit threat does not help foster dialogue between supporters and opponents.

Sierra Club members are closely observing to make sure the project approval process adheres to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as it pertains to the environmental impact statement, Tulkin said. And legal action could be on the table if certain parameters are not met, he added.

“We’re not sitting around waiting for a phone call from the governor. I think he’s made his orientation very clear,” Tulkin said. “We have raised funds and spoke out about our options. We are offering our expert comments into the process, and we are prepared to continue this fight in the courts if our concerns are not properly addressed.”

At a Board of Public Works meeting last year, more than half of people who testified — representing labor unions, concrete contractors and other similar parties — supported the project. 

One of those who testified in support was Marilyn Balcombe, president/CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and the Democratic nominee for County Council District 2.

Balcombe said in an interview that it’s imperative the American Legion Bridge be replaced. That’s a view that County Executive Marc Elrich has held and he repeated that view during a news briefing this week. Elrich has said that Hogan and state officials should look at paying for replacing the bridge with federal funds, and that reversible lanes could be used along I-495 and I-270.

Balcombe agrees with Elrich that state transportation officials should be pursuing federal funds to help replace the American Legion Bridge. Also, a deal brokered last July by County Council Member Hans Riemer and former Maryland Secretary of Transportation Greg Slater to allocate at least $60 million in revenue from the project developer was vital, she said. 

She would like to see the money used for the Corridor Cities Transitway, a 15-mile bus rapid transit route proposed between Gaithersburg and Clarksburg, because the project would have dedicated bus lanes. But most importantly, some version of the I-270 widening project needs to be implemented, Balcombe said. Transit can be part of the solution, but so must roads, she added.

“My biggest fear is we go all the way back to the drawing board, and I know my community can’t wait for it,” Balcombe said. 

Terry Owens, a spokesman for the I-270 project, wrote in an email that the Maryland Department of Transportation is not advancing a section public-private agreement for the I-270 project to the Board of Public Works, until the Federal Highway Administration issues a Record of Decision on the Final Environmental Impact Statement.  

“On a parallel path, [Accelerate Maryland] Partners is advancing its design-build procurement and we look forward to the results,” Owens wrote. Both the [Record of Decision] and [Accelerate Maryland] Partners’ completion of the procurement process will determine the timing of the Section P3 Agreement going to the [Board of Public Works].”

It’s unclear when the Federal Highway Administration could issue its decision on the environmental impact statement associated with the project. A spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email or call for comment Thursday.

But Elrich said during Wednesday’s news briefing that the agency’s action last week shows it doesn’t yet have the federal government’s support.

“I think they had enough smart people who’ve done projects before who looked at this and said, ‘Wait a minute. Not all this adds up,’ ” Elrich said.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com