Michelle and Harry Stone love their Silver Spring neighborhood, which ends at a wall separating the homes from traffic on the Capital Beltway. They’ve been there for 25 years, Michelle said, and there’s a real sense of community.
“The women have craft night,” she said. “The men play poker. So, to think that some of our neighbors might lose their homes — it’s awful.”
The Stones and many residents with homes along I-495 are concerned that adding toll lanes to the highway, as the state has proposed, will disrupt neighborhoods and ruin what Michelle described as a “suburban feel” in many Montgomery County communities.
The couple was one of roughly 300 people rallying Monday night against Gov. Larry Hogan’s highway widening plan, which would add toll lanes along I-270 and the Capital Beltway.
Montgomery County Council Member Tom Hucker organized the event, which took place even though the state’s Board of Public Works postponed a critical vote related to the proposal.
“This is something that’s being negotiated in real time,” he said before the start of the rally. “And we want to get our point across before the board’s next meeting in January.”
In 2017, Hogan proposed a plan to relieve traffic in the region by adding four toll lanes along I-495 and I-270 from the Beltway to Frederick. Maryland taxpayers won’t pay for the project, Hogan has said, because the lanes will be built and operated by private companies in partnership with the state.
The proposal was met with immediate criticism by leaders in Montgomery County and other local jurisdictions. Hucker was joined at the Silver Spring Civic Center on Monday by more than 30 elected officials and community advocates — from U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown and County Executive Marc Elrich to College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn and Josh Tulkin, the director of the Maryland Sierra Club.
For all the differences in duties and districts, they were united in opposition. Hucker called the toll lanes a “terrible proposal” that would contribute to climate change and the loss of homes and businesses. Elrich called it a “serious mistake on the governor’s part,” saying the plan wasn’t fully conceptualized before it was rolled out to the public.
Montgomery County Council Member Evan Glass criticized the proposal from a public safety perspective, suggesting that greater highway demand would divert traffic onto local roadways with already-high numbers of pedestrian injuries or fatalities.
“With the induced demand that we know will come from a widened Beltway and a widened 270,” he said, “there is still no proposal to mitigate the increased traffic flow that will come to New Hampshire Avenue, Colesville Road, Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue … where most of these incidents have taken place.”
Hogan has repeatedly argued that the plan would improve quality of life for residents in one of the busiest areas of the state. He’s labeled opponents of the proposal as “pro-traffic activists” on social media, saying that the state has gone years without passing a workable plan to relieve congestions.
“We acknowledge that 14% strongly oppose our traffic relief plan, and they continuously hold rallies and protests,” Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci wrote in a statement on Monday night. “But after 30 years of no solutions and 3.5 years of delays, nearly 70% of Montgomery and Prince George’s voters support it and want action now. Our interstate agreement with Virginia gives us a historic opportunity to fix the entire Capital Beltway and solve the region’s biggest problem.”
Ricci was referring to a recently announced agreement between Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who agreed to split the cost of lane construction on the American Legion Bridge.
Ricci’s statistics came from a poll of 600 “likely voters” conducted earlier this month by the private firm Ragnar Research Partners.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll from October suggested that 50% of Maryland voters oppose the plan, while 33% strongly oppose it. Forty-four percent of voters favor the proposal, according to the survey.
The rally was organized weeks ago as the state’s Board of Public Works — Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — prepared to vote on controversial amendments that would significantly alter the plan.
The changes would amend a timeline the board approved in June, when Hogan agreed to focus the first phase of the toll lane project on the southern section of I-270.
Under the new plan — which Hogan and Northam introduced at a press conference in November — the state would solicit bids for toll lanes along southern I-270 and I-495 to the American Legion Bridge at the same time.
The amendments would also revise a revenue-sharing agreement with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and allow the state to purchase homes in the expansion corridor as they come up for sale.
The vote has been twice delayed since the Maryland Department of Transportation released a draft of the amendments.
Franchot requested to pull the item from the agenda days before a scheduled meeting on Dec. 8. Hogan then abruptly cancelled the board’s meeting this Wednesday, delaying the decision until after the holidays.
Hucker, who’s spoken with Franchot twice within the past week, said it’s still uncertain whether the board will vote at its next meeting on Jan. 8. Franchot has told Bethesda Beat that there is “no rush” to make a decision on such a significant public works project.
Franchot has asked the county for additional information on its proposal to divert commuters from I-495 to the Intercounty Connector, eliminating the need to add lanes in Montgomery County, Hucker said.
If the alternative is reintroduced, it would contradict an earlier decision by MDOT to eliminate it from further study. At a contentious November meeting, state transportation officials said the proposal “had the worst results from a traffic analysis standpoint.”
“But that’s just MDOT’s opinion,” Hucker said after the rally. “The proposal has never gone away, and we believe it’s the most sensible alternative.”
Frequent changes to the governor’s plan — and the timeline for implementing it — have exacerbated community concerns over the project. Local officials said they were originally told the state wouldn’t need to demolish homes along the expansion corridor, only to learn of the state’s plan to begin buying property.
The state has declined to release its own analysis of the project, including the projected cost of the tolls.
Dozens of local advocates have rejected the proposal for its failure to consider public transit options and the environmental impacts of added lanes. Brad German, co-chair of the advocacy group Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, said Monday that the lanes would leave Maryland with an unsustainable traffic solution for decades to come.
“Turning public dollars into velvet-roped parkways for a privileged few is not the solution,” he said. “The state needs to show its toll estimates so voters can decide if this will really meet market demand.”