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Could the Parks System Use Its Land as Leverage in I-270, Beltway Project?

County Council members receive briefing on state’s study of ideas for addressing gridlock

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The Capital Beltway near the I-270 interchange in Bethesda

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER FAMARTIN

Montgomery County planning officials have estimated that adding four lanes to the Beltway and Interstate 270—a “worst-case scenario,” according to one official—could consume 209 acres of land across 26 parks in Montgomery County.

The planning agency has already spent months analyzing Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to add toll lanes on both thoroughfares as a way of easing the traffic congestion that stymies hundreds of thousands of daily commuters. And the review has left them frustrated.

On Tuesday, a special project manager from Montgomery Parks and the planning department explained in a public meeting that the agency has a list of concerns about how the state is evaluating the potential public-private project. The commission’s significant land holdings around the two involved highways give their displeasure some weight, she said.

“They need us to deed it over to them if they’re going to begin construction. If we’re not happy, we can use that as leverage,” Carol Rubin, the special project manager who represents Montgomery Parks and Planning for the I-495/I-270 Managed Lanes Project, said in an interview.

Representatives from the Montgomery County Planning Department, which is part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and county agencies appeared before the County Council on Tuesday to brief members on a state-led study of the road-widening options and other alternatives for addressing transportation logjams.

State transportation officials were invited to Tuesday’s meeting but declined to participate at this point, council President Hans Riemer said.

The federally mandated study of transportation solutions kicked off after Hogan last year announced his $9 billion plan to work with a private concessionaire to build two new toll lanes in each direction on the Maryland section of the Beltway and on I-270 from Bethesda to the Interstate 70 juncture. His proposal also calls for expanding the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Marylanders have some of the nation’s longest commutes, with state residents spending a daily average of 32 minutes getting to work, according to U.S. Census data. Some of the worst backups are on I-270 and the Beltway, where severe congestion bogs down traffic for an average of seven and 10 hours each day respectively.

The current study—whose scope is limited to a piece of Hogan’s plan—evaluates the potential environmental impacts of traffic improvements on the Beltway through Maryland and on I-270 up to Interstate 370. The study from I-370 to the I-70 junction is slated to begin next year, but council member Craig Rice expressed frustration Tuesday that the upcounty area is left out of the initial analysis.

In July, state officials released 15 ideas for dealing with congestion on these road sections and also developed six criteria to guide them in winnowing the list to the most viable options.

Hogan’s toll-road proposal is among the 15 ideas, but alternatives are also on the table, such as adding new general-use lanes, reversible lanes and high-occupancy vehicle lanes and expanding transit options.

However, Rubin and county transportation officials have objected that the state’s drafted selection criteria and purpose and need statement would preference the governor’s toll-lane option over the alternatives.

“…[T]he Purpose and Need Statement should be an account of a transportation problem, not a justification for a desired solution,” M-NCPPC officials wrote in an August memo to the state officials who are heading up the study. “As written, the Purpose and Need Statement appears to be a rationalization for managed lanes.”

For instance, the statement identifies managed lanes (such as toll lanes or high-occupancy vehicle lanes where travel is restricted) as the only solution for the goals of accommodating existing and future traffic, enhancing trip reliability and providing additional roadway travel choice, according to the memo.

Ben Ross, who chairs the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, is skeptical that rail and bus options will receive fair consideration.

“They’re slanting the study basically to make highway expansion the only possible conclusion. They’re saying the purpose is to move more cars and not to move more people,” said Ross, whose group is holding a Thursday evening meeting in Frederick on the toll-lane proposal.

In a prepared statement, state transportation officials said they have not chosen a favored option.

“It is just too early. We are required to first look at all potential options and integrate public comment—that is where we currently are in the process,” John Schofield, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, wrote in an email.

While much about Hogan’s proposal remains unclear, council member Nancy Floreen on Tuesday said she was glad the state is talking about addressing logjams on I-270.

“For Pete’s sake, when I first ran for office in 2002, one of the first meetings I went to as a candidate was a 270 study effort. … That got shelved, basically, and that was what, 16 years ago?” she said. “So at least we’re having this conversation.”

The notion of building new lanes has generated significant opposition from transit advocates and residents along the Beltway who worry the state will claim their properties for any expansion project. Space constraints around the Beltway are particularly acute on the section east of the I-270 interchange, where the highway snakes through Rock Creek Park, past Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, under a CSX bridge and around single-family homes. One county parks official told council members the Beltway in many parts of Rock Creek Park couldn’t be expanded much more “without actually ending up on top of the river.”

Given those factors, council member Tom Hucker said some of the state’s proposed expansion options seem implausible.

“Whatever solution the best minds come up with, they have to conform to federal interstate standards and to Newtonian physics, really. And I can’t figure out where four, at-grade lanes go in the current right-of-way,” he said.

At a Labor Day parade, Hogan told a group of concerned residents that no homes would be knocked down to make way for the additional road capacity. Schofield said the state intends to choose a road improvement option that can fit within the existing highway right-of-way.

“There are innovative solutions for transportation features in tight spaces around the world, and we want to leverage those solutions here in Maryland,” he wrote. “We ultimately plan to seek these types of solutions from the private sector through the P3 (public-private partnership) process.”

However, opponents of the expansion plans have been pressuring the state to release specifics about how many feet the new toll lanes—or “Lexus Lanes,” as they pejoratively call them—might add and how much land acquisition might be needed to pull off the project.

“They plan to widen 72 miles of road. Are we really to believe that won’t threaten homes and businesses near the Beltway (maybe Holy Cross Hospital), as well as green spaces, including Rock Creek Park?” wrote Brad German of the group Citizens Against Beltway Expansion. “Governor Hogan said on Labor Day no homes would be taken down for the toll lanes. If true, that would be great news. So we sent a letter asking him to confirm his statement and clarify how much new width the Lexus Lanes will need.”

The six criteria proposed for screening the 15 options are: engineering considerations, homeland security, movement of goods and services, financial viability, multimodal connectivity and environmental impacts. Rubin said none of the criteria specifically addresses potential effects for communities along the project’s path.

Christopher Conklin, deputy director for policy in the county’s transportation department, also urged the state to weigh the equity issues involved in building toll lanes that might be too costly for some drivers to use.

As a cooperating agency in the study process, M-NCPPC is asked to give formal concurrence and comments at several stages of the review. Currently, Rubin said, the commission is working with SHA on the wording of the drafted purpose and needs statement.

The state and M-NCPPC entered into similar negotiations over the potential loss of 85 acres of county parkland during planning for the Intercounty Connecter, Rubin said. In that case, the county was compensated by gaining 8.5 acres of new parkland for every acre used in the road project.

This case is somewhat different, Rubin said, because the parkland in question encompasses a number of irreplaceable stream valleys.

County Planning Director Gwen Wright said park and planning officials would prefer to be collaborative rather than adversarial with the state, supplying alternatives rather than focusing on criticism.

Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson said while the council’s concurrence is not a required part of the study process, M-NCPPC will be looking to the county’s elected leaders for guidance.

“I think it’s more appropriate for elected officials to be making decisions like this,” he said.

The state is expected to narrow down the list of 15 alternatives in the next few months, a council staff member said.

Roadway alternatives released by the state as part of the Managed Lanes Study earlier this year. Credit: Maryland State Highway Administration.

This story was updated to clarify Carol Rubin’s current title.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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