2020 | Transportation

Council finalizes comments on I-495/I-270 widening study

Officials to ask state for further review of ‘diversion’ alternative

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Montgomery County officials plan to ask the state to go back to the drawing board with an analysis of a “diversion” alternative for a proposed I-495 and I-270 widening.

The state is closed to ending a public comment period on a roughly 19,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project. County officials have been gathering their final comments on the study, which they believe is deficient.

The state is proposing widening I-495 and I-270 through a public-private partnership, which would be reimbursed by toll revenues. The project, which is aimed at alleviating traffic bottlenecking on the stretch, is estimated to cost between $9 billion and $11 billion.

Six alternatives for the widening are included in the DEIS, most of which recommend adding two lanes on either side of I-495 and I-270 to accommodate high-occupancy vehicles and those opting to pay tolls.

The County Council and other county officials have called for transit and other alternatives to be considered, such as a traffic diversion to the Intercounty Connector to avoid widening I-495 through Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The diversion would also protect federal- and county-owned parkland surrounding the northeastern stretch of I-495 — also known as Capper-Cramton land.

But county officials say the diversion proposal was left out of the state’s analysis and should still be considered.

The council was four days away from the Nov. 9 deadline for public comment when it approved a letter containing its final comments to the state on Thursday. The letter is also expected to be signed by County Executive Marc Elrich.

There are five main points laid out in the council’s letter. The first states that the state had an “insufficient” analysis of the diversion proposal. The council repeated its request for full and detailed study of it.

Council Vice President Tom Hucker said during a council meeting on Thursday that the Maryland Department of Transportation ignored the alternative.

The council shouldn’t be boxed in by the state’s other alternatives while its own proposal is ignored, he said.

The second item in the letter points to the crumbling of the Purple Line light-rail public-private partnership (P3). The 495/270 widening project would also have a P3.

“We now know what has gone on with the Purple Line,” Hucker said. “We’re very concerned about the collapse and future of that project. MDOT has not explained the reasons why the previous largest public-private partnership has run aground.

“After an unprecedented failure like that, MDOT is still moving forward with a P3 that’s larger in scope and complexity without ever conducting … an analysis of what went wrong.”

The council also pointed to potential long-term impacts to traffic patterns because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter cited a study conducted for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority that predicted lower vehicle miles traveled across the region in 2025 — about 31% less travel time than previously expected.

The council also stated that the project’s alternatives are “constrained to highway investments that mirror those of Northern Virginia, but without the commitment to transit exhibited by Virginia.”

“We urge MDOT to broaden its focus so that this project conforms, at a minimum, to the established practice in the region that new express toll facilities provide meaningful and ongoing support to transit,” the letter stated.

The final point in the letter was concerns over uncertain environmental impacts. It requested more details on specific strategies for dealing with stormwater runoff, impacts to streams and other watershed issues.

Other environmental concerns are air quality in nearby neighborhoods, highway noise and impacts to community and cultural resources, according to the letter.

The letter lists nine recommendations for the project, which includes agreements over substantial and ongoing funding for transit; minimizing potential harm to communities from encroachment, including a shared use trail on the reconstructed American Legion Bridge; and other requests.

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