2021 | Transit

Brown, Hucker say more transit needed for Beltway expansion

Nonprofit opposes congressman’s ‘assertions’ on project

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The Capital Beltway near the I-270 interchange in Bethesda

File photo

U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown and Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker on Monday called for the state to consider more transit options for the Capital Beltway expansion project.

The project includes developing high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on I-270 and the Beltway — two of which will be added across the American Legion Bridge to I-270 and north on I-270 to I-370. The construction is in Phase 1 of a larger widening plan for the highways.

Brown, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said that although the priority is to relieve congestion on the Beltway and the American Legion Bridge, the state shouldn’t encourage more cars on the road. He joined Hucker for the council president’s weekly briefing with reporters.

“Unfortunately, that’s what the managed lane proposal from Gov. [Larry] Hogan includes,” Brown said. “We really want to get cars off the road long-term. … If we really want to invest in infrastructure that is equitable, that serves the needs of all Marylanders, all Americans — regardless of income — you’ve got to have a robust, real transit option and that’s what’s lacking here.”

Brown said the state needs “the right mix” of expanding the road capacity, but also with an investment in transit.

The state’s plan calls for adding bicycle and pedestrian connection across the bridge, where construction will begin first.

Buses and vehicles with three or more people can travel the HOT lanes for free. Drivers traveling alone would pay if they used the managed lanes.

Opponents of the project have consistently voiced concerns about uncertain environmental impacts, a lack of transit plans, and the potential failure of another public-private partnership, such as the one that fell apart for the Purple Line project.

Hucker said the county has asked for repairs to the American Legion Bridge for years, but officials have also asked for Hogan to invest in the transitway and other transit infrastructure, and he has declined.

“We need a balanced approach, as the congressman said. We need, not only targeted road improvements, but we need a big investment in transit that is widely popular with the public and consistent with our climate and racial equity goals,” Hucker said. “We need transportation demand management.”

Hucker said state officials need to listen to professional transportation planners on congestion.

“Unanimously, our bipartisan, bicounty planning board thought this plan doesn’t reduce congestion because it’s so out of balance,” he said. “I’ll just add that this is the same MDOT that mismanaged the Purple Line project and created substantial delay and $250 million in additional costs that are going to be borne by taxpayers.

“Of course it’s reasonable to think that the public lacks confidence in this leadership at MDOT to manage a far bigger and out-of-balance project as the managed lanes project has been drawn out.”

In a letter last week, Brown pressed U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to review the I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study (MLS), for adding new high-occupancy toll lanes to the Capital Beltway.

Brown wrote that project “deficiencies” include a lack of transit options, an outdated approach and conflict with the Biden administration, the “unknowns” of the pandemic’s effect on travel, and project phasing inconsistencies with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Brown asked Buttigieg to reevaluate the federal transportation department’s role in the project and to restart the NEPA process to “mitigate damage that this project would do” to the state.

Some have opposed Brown’s view of the project, including nonprofit Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.

In a letter to Buttigieg on Friday, Edgar Gonzalez, executive director of the alliance, noted that Phase 1 of the highway project is not in Brown’s district.

“Congressman [Brown’s] voice and comments are important, but it must also be noted that they would be more relevant to Phase 2 of the MLS should any future phases proceed to final design or construction,” he wrote.

Gonzalez disagreed with Brown on aspects of the project. He wrote that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement of the project addresses several transit options, including alternative heavy rail, light rail, dedicated bus managed lanes, and others.

He also challenged Brown’s view that the project conflicts with the Biden administration’s priorities and that the pandemic would have a significant impact on the plans.

“The effect of COVID-19 in a project that at best will be opened in stages by 2024 and is planned to accommodate the transportation needs of the Corridor in 2045 and beyond will be insignificant,” he wrote.

Gonzalez also wrote that there is no inconsistency with the NEPA process, since the state will not do any construction until a final EIS is approved.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.