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 8:50 p.m. on Aug. 25, 2022, to include comments from Marc Elrich. It was updated at 9:45 a.m. Aug. 26, 2022, to include additional comments.

An environmental impact statement for Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen Interstates 495 and 270 has been approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) – clearing a major hurdle in the project and making it eligible for federal funding.

Nearly five years ago, Hogan proposed widening all of the Beltway in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as I-270, and installing two toll lanes in each direction to help pay for the project. Last year, the Maryland Department of Transportation announced that the first phase had been scaled back, and now only includes the replacement of the American Legion Bridge, the portion of I-270 that runs to the I-370 interchange and the westernmost section of I-495 that leads to I-270. The cost of this work is estimated to be between $3.75 billion and $4.25 billion.

According to state transportation officials, the plan “avoids all residential and business displacements and significantly reduces impact on parkland, right of way and other resources…” It also replaces the American Legion Bridge, which is 60 years old.

County Executive Marc Elrich and some County Council members and other state and local officials have criticized Hogan’s project due to environmental concerns and the belief that it will not solve the region’s traffic problems. In July, Elrich urged federal officials to delay a decision on the plan for 60 days to give the public time to review the impact statement, which is more than 26,000 pages.

On Thursday the State Highway Administration (SHA) and FHWA announced its approval, which is the final milestone in a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The environmental review process lasted four years and included multiple public workshops and hearings, according to a press release.

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Hogan applauded the decision, saying in a press release that the state has applied for a federal grant to help pay for the increased cost of the project resulting from “years of federal bureaucratic delays—along with political stall tactics by Montgomery County politicians ignoring the will of their constituents.”

“This interstate project will address one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country, create more jobs and opportunities, and expand bike, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure,” the governor said in a press release. “It is exactly the kind of bold and forward-thinking solution that Marylanders have been crying out for, for years if not decades.”

Earlier this month, the FHWA was scheduled to approve the impact statement, but announced a delay in its review of the environmental impact statement. Following that announcement, Hogan, who has less than five months left in office, threatened to sue the FHA. The Sierra Club and other local organizations have argued that the public deserves more time to review the lengthy impact statement.

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Elrich said in a statement to Bethesda Beat Thursday evening that he is “disappointed and dismayed” about the ruling. Elrich noted that he had asked the Federal Highway Administration more than a month ago to delay its decision for at least 60 days to “ensure proper public engagement and creative problem solving for the myriad of issues which will surface over the course of this project.”

“While the state has sadly refused to engage with stakeholders, and listen to reasonable concerns, we hoped the [highway administration] would ensure Montgomery Countians would have time to evaluate,” he said. “Sadly, that was not the case.

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Elrich said in the statement that the public had less than 40 days to review various environmental analyses as well as the Maryland Department of Transportation’s response to 5,000 comments the agency had received previously.

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“This is a process that has been bereft of transparency and has ignored valid concerns from members of the public, and advocates from the environmental and transportation communities,” he said. “Instead of working with partners in the government and throughout our state on this project, the Hogan Administration is rushing through a long-term commitment to a private corporation that will cost billions of dollars and will not fix gridlock.”

The Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, another opponent of the project, said that the traffic modeling used in the environmental impact statement was not sufficient enough to prove whether the extra lanes would relieve traffic congestion.

“The basic rationale asserted for this project is traffic relief,” the coalition wrote in a statement. “We are deeply disappointed that FHWA would issue a Record of Decision when the merits of the project have not been confirmed.”

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Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club — another group that has opposed the project — said the project still has other steps before it is finally approved. And a possible lawsuit is on the table, he added.

“Although we’re disappointed by FHWA’s decision, this is not the final word on this fundamentally flawed project,” Tulkin said in a prepared statement. “The developer still does not have a construction partner, there is an ongoing bid challenge, and both candidates for governor have expressed reservations about the project. Sierra Club and partners will be looking carefully at the ROD and considering our legal options.”

The project will move forward to the state Board of Public Works for additional steps. The board’s members are Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck E. Davis. Among the steps remaining is the approval of a final contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners – the consortium of private companies working with the state to carry out the project.

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Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com