2021 | Transportation

Differing voices heard on I-270, I-495 expansion plan

Supplemental report was released Oct. 1; comments accepted through Nov. 15

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Feedback on a recent analysis of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to add toll lanes to portions of interstates 270 and 495 was mixed during a forum on Monday.

The Maryland State Highway Administration released its 288-page supplemental draft environmental impact statement on Oct. 1 for the first phase of the project, which includes:

  • Rebuilding the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River
  • Adding two new High-Occupancy Toll lanes in each direction between the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Old Georgetown Road interchanges
  • Converting one High-Occupancy Vehicle lane in each direction on I-270 into toll lanes between the I-495 split and the I-370 interchange, and on the I-270 east and west spurs.

The report found that in 2045, there would be more traffic overall on the two interstates due to the presence of toll lanes, although it asserts that the lanes could accommodate higher volumes and relieve congestion.

When Hogan announced his plan to widen I-270 and the Beltway in September 2017, the plan also included portions of the Beltway east of the I-270 spur. That section of the plan, however, was removed from the first phase in May.

The report released last month is an update to the previous draft environmental impact statement that examined six possible widening scenarios, but did not indicate a “preferred alternative.”

The state is collecting comments about the October report during a 45-day period, which includes written comments and those heard during two virtual forums on Monday. The State Highway and Federal Highway administrations will respond to some comments in its final environmental impact statement.

During Monday evening’s forum, Gaithersburg City Council Member Neil Harris said the city supports the plan because it increases capacity for vehicles, and the toll-lane structure “provides a realistic funding mechanism.”

“We see this as the practical option that provides much needed relief to our workers and to anyone who uses the transportation network for shopping for errands with kids, for deliveries for our businesses, even provides funding for new transit projects, like some of the proposed bus rapid transit services. It is critical to move this project ahead immediately,” he said.

Harris said building a new bridge across the Potomac River is essential for the region.

“Failure to replace the bridge now to create a long-term disaster if there is a structural issue that cuts off the primary artery between Montgomery County and Northern Virginia. There is no way around it and it would be irresponsible to risk that kind of catastrophe,” he said.

Following Harris, state Del. Jared Solomon (D-Silver Spring) was less sympathetic to Hogan’s proposal.

Solomon, whose district includes parts of lower Montgomery County, said a public funding option would be better than the public-private partnership called for in implementing the toll lanes. Federal funding could be available, particularly if Congress passes its infrastructure package, he said.

“The entire premise of this is, in some respects, flawed,” he said.

Solomon referenced portions of the supplemental report released last month that illustrate marginal benefit to drivers seeking congestion relief.

Among its findings, the report projected that in 2045, rush-hour travelers in the evening on the inner loop across the Legion Bridge would drive at an average speed of 7 miles per hour in the general purpose lanes. Drivers in the HOT lanes would travel at an average speed of 23 miles per hour.

“So, what we’re saying is we’re going to make these incredible investments, be on the hook to a private company for 50 years, and [it’s] not even going to be that big of a deal,” Solomon said.

Solomon added that Hogan’s plan also is counterproductive, in that it removes some current features of I-270 in Montgomery County intended to help with congestion relief.

“What is particularly frustrating about this is this plan … will take away some of the additional lanes that were added through the ramp metering and it will take away an HOV lane that while technically, you know, is high occupancy for several hours during the day, it’s actually a free-lane the rest of the time and that will be taken away,” he said.

CJ Santos of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said it supports the plan because it would relieve congestion and put thousands of Marylanders back to work, including small, minority and other disadvantaged contractors in the state.

“Current congestion on American Legion bridge and I-270 is a major disincentive to economic growth in the state of Maryland and there is no other practical solution that addresses these choke points,” he said.

Mark Lautman, a Rockville resident who lives about 2,000 feet from the Montrose Road interchange with I-270, spoke critically on Monday of what he said is Montgomery County’s opposition to building roads, noting that there was a proposal in the 1960s to build an outer Beltway across the Potomac.

Lautman said the lack of roads between Maryland and Virginia has contributed to poor economic growth in Montgomery County.

“With no employers and with no roads to get to where the employers are, and with a growing population, the commute times have only grown to a point where they are soul-crushing, as Governor Hogan said. And we refuse, we refuse as a county, to address these concerns to the point when outside jurisdiction is coming in and solving the problem for us,” he said.

Kyle Hart, representing the National Parks Conservation Association, said on Monday that his organization remains concerned about the potential environmental impact.

“As currently proposed, this project would have negative impacts on 17 acres of National Park Service property at three distinct NPS sites,” he said.

Hart added that more than 1,200 trees would need to be clear cut to make way for the improvements.

Hart said MDOT has not been transparent about its intentions for developing future phases of the project not included in the first phase.

“To call these impacts removed is simply disingenuous — really kind of a lie,” he said.

People can submit comments on the supplemental draft environmental impact statement through Nov. 15. Comments can be:

Jeffrey T. Folden, P.E, DBIA
Director, I-495 & I-270 P3 Office
Maryland Department of Transportation
State Highway Administration
707 N. Calvert St.
Mail Stop P-601 
Baltimore, MD 21202

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com