2021 | Transportation

UPDATED: Large portion of Capital Beltway removed from highway widening plan, leaving I-270

Decision comes after months of opposition from local officials, residents

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Shown in a map of the Maryland Department of Transportation's new recommended preferred alternative for the I-270 widening project in dark blue. The previous work proposed on the Capital Beltway, shown in light blue, will no longer be a part of the project's first phase.

Map from Maryland Department of Transportation

This story was updated at 10:55 a.m. on May 13, 2021, to include comments from officials and to clarify project details.

The Maryland Department of Transportation has removed a large portion of the Capital Beltway from a plan to widen Interstate 270, after the broader plan drew months of opposition from local officials, residents and environmental advocates.

The project came under fire from Montgomery County officials, residents and environmental groups who voiced concerns about uncertain environmental impacts, a lack of transit plans in the project, and the potential failure of another public-private partnership, such as the one that fell apart for the Purple Line project.

County Executive Marc Elrich said a statement Wednesday night that he was pleased that the change eliminates residential and commercial displacements.

In response to the ongoing plans for the American Legion Bridge and I-270 and I-495 west of Old Georgetown Road, Elrich urged the state to “seriously consider two reversible lanes on I-270 that flow in the direction of morning and evening rush hours,” he said. “Additionally, because the plan currently stops at I-370, I am concerned that the plan will change the location of the bottlenecks rather than alleviating them.”

Elrich reiterated his concern about the project being completed under a public-private partnership (P3), which has the “potential to be unnecessarily expensive.”

MDOT announced the change on Wednesday, saying there is a new recommended preferred alternative for the project’s first phase. The new alternative will only focus on construction of a new American Legion Bridge and two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction from the southern end of I-270 to I-370.

As part of the new alternative, the proposal includes adding one HOT managed lane and converting an existing high-occupancy vehicle lane into a HOT managed lane on I-270 from I-495 to north of I-370, and on the I-270 eastern spur from east of Md. 187 to I-270.

There is “no action at this time on I-495 east of the I-270 eastern spur,” according to MDOT’s announcement.

On the project’s website, state officials did not provide a specific reason for the decision, but said it followed “several months of continuous collaboration and listening to agency partners, public officials and stakeholders.”

“This [recommended preferred alternative (RPA)] does not suggest that improvements will not be needed on the top side and east side of I-495,” state officials wrote in a fact sheet on the new alternative.

“If the new RPA is selected at the conclusion of the [managed lanes study], consideration of improvements to remaining parts of the interstate system would advance separately, subject to additional environmental studies, analysis and collaboration with the public, stakeholders and agency partners.”

A spokesman for the project did not immediately respond to a request on Wednesday for comment on reasons for the state’s decision.

The Federal Highway Administration and the MDOT State Highway Administration expect to release a Supplement Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project’s first phase in late summer.

Under the new proposal, drivers with fewer than three people in vehicles would pay a toll in the HOT lanes. Vehicles carrying three or more people, buses, motorcycles, plug-in electric drive vehicles with valid permits, and tow trucks responding to an emergency.

A multiuse trail will also be added on the new American Legion Bridge for pedestrians and cyclists.

County Council President Tom Hucker wrote in a Twitter post on Wednesday that MDOT still needs to propose a “workable 21st-century solution to move people, not just cars. And to do it via a transparent [and] accountable process, with public oversight and worker protections, not an unaccountable P3.”

Hucker wrote that the project should invest in transit projects, transportation demand management, and improvements to aging state roads.

Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, which has strongly opposed the project, wrote in a statement on Wednesday that the plan is now a “smaller flawed proposal.”

The new plan fails to address many of the club’s concerns, he wrote.

“The planned toll lanes will still harm communities, rather than decrease traffic congestion, and will not solve the environmental justice problems with this project,” he wrote. “We remain deeply concerned over the plan’s anti-transit bias and expenditure of scarce transportation dollars for a project that will primarily benefit the affluent and not be affordable for economically disadvantaged environmental justice populations.”

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