2021 | Transportation

After critical vote, I-270/I-495 air-quality analysis will take nine months

Review of project could determine federal approval

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After a critical vote in July, an I-270/I-495 widening project must undergo a review to see whether it meets federal environmental standards. The review is expected to take nine months.

Last month, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board voted to include the 270/495 widening project — which also includes part of the Capital Beltway and reconstruction of the American Legion Bridge — in an air-quality conformity analysis. 

In June, the board voted to remove it from that analysis, putting the project at risk of not being federally approved and thus eligible for federal funds.

Then, after political debate between Montgomery County leaders and Gov. Larry Hogan, Council Member Hans Riemer helped lead negotiations between Hogan’s office, the Department of Transportation and county officials

A majority of County Council members signed on in support of the project, based on promised funding toward potential transit projects countywide. And the Transportation Planning Board, with new supporters appointed, reversed course at its most recent meeting

The project’s first phase includes reconstructing the American Legion Bridge and constructing two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction. The price tag for it is about $6 billion.

That was included with several other projects for an air-quality analysis, a critical part of Visualize 2045, the Transportation Planning Board’s long-term regional plan. 

Kanti Srikanth, the staff director for the board, said in an interview that the analysis is technical and takes staff members about nine months to complete. It’s an important step, because all projects in Visualize 2045 must meet environmental standards to receive federal approval, he added.

According to the Transportation Planning Board website, part of that analysis includes a series of tests using computer models to predict “how much air pollution will be generated over the next 25 years by facilities in the plan, and how much the air will be improved by cleaner gasoline standards and many other factors.”

An air-quality conformity analysis can include several data points from jurisdictions throughout the Washington, D.C., region, including:

  • Employment data for each locality, projected through 2045
  • Population data, projected through 2045
  • Limits on nitrogen oxide emissions and other pollutants, and where the region currently stands
  • Projected travel models for future years, including how many tons of pollutants are expected

The types of emissions included in the air-quality conformity analysis are ozone season pollutants, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), according to the Transportation Planning Board’s website.

The I-270 project, like all other proposed projects in Visualize 2045, will undergo these analyses.

Srikanth said that if the 617 projects in the long-term plan do not meet standards set by the Clean Air Act and other federal laws, the Transportation Planning Board can choose to remove them from the analysis — including, perhaps, the I-270 widening project and American Legion Bridge replacement. 

Srikanth said the board could add policies in Visualize 2045 that reduce emissions, ranging from teleworking to ridesharing programs. Those actions, although not tied to any direct project, can get cars and vehicles off the road, reducing emissions. 

The Transportation Planning Board will receive the air-quality conformance analysis from the board staff in June 2022, and see if it meets federal regulations. 

“If it doesn’t meet the air-quality test, then the [board] will not be able to adopt the updated plan next June and have to fix this,” Srikanth said. That means removing projects or adding aforementioned policies and plans to reduce emissions in Visualize 2045.

If the staff approves the plan, the board could then vote to approve it and send it for review by federal agencies. Srikanth said the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Highway Administration are the leading agencies on that review, with guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Visualize 2045 must be updated every four years, Srikanth said. Since the plan was last updated in 2018, the board must approve a final version by the end of 2022. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com