Council Wants Clarity from State Over Demolishing Homes for Toll Lanes
Transportation secretary’s comments are changing, worrying some county leaders
Council President Nancy Navarro
Last week’s two hour-plus Montgomery County Council meeting with Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn wasn’t enough to satisfy council members that no houses would be taken under eminent domain if toll lanes are added to Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced a $9 billion plan in September 2017 to build toll lanes on I-270 from the Beltway to Frederick, and on the Maryland portion of the Beltway, under a private-public partnership model.
Council members Nancy Navarro and Tom Hucker said during a news conference Monday that Rahn, despite previous assurances, had gone back on his pledge last week in saying that the state would “incentivize and prioritize” its contracting with private companies that were committed not to taking homes.
They said the language differs from Rahn’s assurance at an Oct. 11 meeting with state legislators that “no homes will be taken.”
“We specifically asked, what about homes and what about particular businesses? He said that they would do whatever they could to mitigate that, but he was not unequivocal,” Navarro said Monday.
Rahn had said at last week’s meeting that some locations, such as the portion of the Beltway that goes through Greenbelt in Prince George’s County, included areas where there were no homes or businesses and construction would be able to occur outside the right-of-way.
But there is still the issue of the Montgomery portion of the Beltway east of the I-270 interchange, which traverses several neighborhoods. Both the council and County Executive Marc Elrich have said they don’t think the state could expand this portion of the Beltway without disrupting traffic on several road overpasses, a Metro bridge and a CSX railroad bridge.
Rahn said he believes adding the toll lanes on this portion is possible, pointing to the double-decked toll lanes on the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway in Dallas as an example.
“We will find out when we see the results of our [environmental evaluation], because those features along the Beltway need to be studied to determine if it’s even doable,” Rahn said last week.
Aides did not respond to a request for comment on today’s Navarro news conference Monday afternoon.
Council members have also been critical of the state’s outreach efforts to educate the public on the possible impacts of the construction, with council member Craig Rice, whose district includes the upcounty areas of Germantown and Clarksburg, calling out Rahn for scheduling three public information sessions next month in Rockville, Bethesda and Silver Spring.
“Germantown is one of the most diverse areas in terms of diversity and socioeconomic status,” Rice said last week. “You have many people who are driving very affordable vehicles and then can’t afford to drive on those high occupancy lanes… I hope you can look at this through more than profitability for the state and how this can make peoples’ lives better. I know that’s what you believe.”
In response, State Highway Administration chief Greg Slater, who also attended that meeting, said they would “explore” holding a meeting upcounty.
Hucker said on Monday that he hopes the council will begin “a much more collaborative process” with Hogan when it comes to the road projects.
“There’s a number of council members that have raised concerns about the way they’ve conducted these outreach sessions. To date they’ve essentially been dog-and-pony shows,” he said.
Hucker added that he wished the state would consider adding a public transit component to the toll road plan. He also referenced a letter that the council and county executive sent to Rahn earlier this month asking the state to prioritize the I-270 portion of the project.
“We’ve been asking for that for years. We have not received it. It’s great that they want to focus on congestion in Montgomery County in the fifth year of the Hogan administration. This is the place to start. We all agree on that,” Hucker said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org