As the county executive’s office and County Council work to submit their formal response this fall to the recently released draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the I-495/I-270 widening project, County Executive Marc Elrich had some preliminary advice Thursday for state officials: Go back to the “drawing board.”
Saying that “we are not supporting going forward as it stands right now,” Elrich complained that “the state has structured this as an all-or-nothing project. By ruling out transit and other alternatives, it’s left us with either you support toll lanes or you don’t support doing anything. And this sets the project up…to be in opposition to what most of the public thinks should be done right now.”
He added: “You’d be hard put to find anybody who says ‘Don’t improve the American Legion Bridge and make some improvements along 270’ – which is way different [than] how people feel about the Beltway.”
Elrich appeared during the last of six virtual and in-person hearings sponsored by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) in the wake of the July release of a 19,000 page DEIS on the plan to widen I-495 and I-270. Under a proposal unveiled by Gov. Larry Hogan nearly three years ago, the project would be built using a public-private partnership (P3) – in which private firms finance, build and operate the so-called “managed lanes,” and would be reimbursed by toll revenues.
But, during separate appearances at Thursday’s hearing – held at the Hilton Executive Meeting Center in Rockville — Elrich and Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton emphasized two factors not on the horizon when Hogan proposed the project in 2017: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the problems that have beset the P3 arrangement for constructing the light rail Purple Line through Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“The DEIS neglects the impact of the pandemic altogether, and is fundamentally flawed,” Newton declared, charging that the study’s “travel demand model uses traffic counts that were performed prior to the March COVID shutdown across our country – and, without evidence, assumes that traffic volumes will resume to pre-COVID and then increase.”
While the DEIS contains six alternatives for widening I-495 and I-270 – most of them proposing to add two lanes on either side to accommodate high occupancy vehicles and those opting to pay tolls – Newton embraced the study’s seventh alternative: no new construction.
“Speaking today on behalf of our entire council and our community of over 70,000 people…the city of Rockville unanimously supports the only rational alternative in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act – the no-build alternative,” Newton said.
Elrich also raised the potential fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic on the project, advising state officials: “Frankly, we all think that you ought to go back and look at the drawing board. In the world of COVID…there is no guarantee that people are going back to work in offices in the numbers they went to before. You could very easily be building for a world that existed the day before COVID that won’t exist when this is over with.”
Elrich’s appearance at the hearing came several hours after a Baltimore circuit court judge had ruled that the private consortium building the Purple Line could walk away from the project in a dispute with MDOT over cost overruns.
Elrich, echoing several other public officials who had testified at hearings on the DEIS stretching back to late August,noted that the estimated $9 billion to $11 billion price estimate on the I-495/I-270 project is several times the original price tag for constructing the Purple Line.
“A lot of work was done on the Purple Line before that contract was ever let. And we obviously saw how that played out today – not very well,” Elrich declared. “This [I-495/I-270] project, which is ready to go to P3, has had none of the study and the scrutiny that was done on the Purple Line.
“We don’t have the level of confidence that the state is ready to manage a P3 at this magnitude, and with as many things that are likely to be unknown on this project that dwarf the scale of the project that was the Purple Line.”
The Rockville session wrapped up a hearing process that started in late August, and which attracted a total of about 125 witnesses at the virtual and in-person hearings. Others seeking to express opinion on the findings of the DEIS have until Nov. 9 to submit comments online or by mail to MDOT. (https://495-270-p3.com/your-participation/provide-feedback/)
Most of those appearing at the hearings expressed opposition to or strong reservations about the I-495/I-270 project, as did virtually all of the half-dozen elected and public officials from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who testified.
An exception was Gaithersburg City Councilman Neil Harris, who spoke in support of the project at a virtual hearing on Aug. 25. (https://495-270-p3.com/your-participation/past-public-outreach/#hearings2020). To some degree, Harris’ stance reflected an upcounty-downcounty split over the project, given fewer mass transit options in Montgomery’s northern section.
“We experience in this region some of the worst highway congestion in the country, and our population continues to grow. The last time capacity was added to I-270 was 30 years ago, and hundreds of thousands of new residents have moved into the 270 corridor since the last expansion back in 1990,” Harris said. “Congestion is only expected to dramatically increase in the years ahead.”
He took issue with predictions that the pandemic will reduce highway demand in the long-term.
“The pandemic has so many of us working from home, and it shows that the highways can run with little congestion,” Harris,a member of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board – acknowledged.
But he added: “Reducing usage is one option, but the pandemic’s impact is temporary. Once we’re all back to work, teleworking may be more common, but it’s unlikely to reduce travel enough to fix mobility. Adding this kind of infrastructure to provide the necessary capacity is the right answer for us.”
However, Newton, a former chair of the Transportation Planning Board, took a sharply different view Thursday.
Noting that a recent study by an independent consultant for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority “predicts far lower vehicle miles traveled across the [Washington region] in 2025,” Newton said: “[Vehicle miles traveled] post-pandemic received a 40 percent decrease. Six months into this pandemic, governments, businesses and non-profits are teleworking and many in our region say that they will continue to work remotely or with staggered schedules.”
In his testimony, Elrich listed several other issues he feels the DEIS did not adequately address:
Traffic congestion: “The project claims to improve traffic – but the analysis itself finds that in many cases the managed lanes barely perform better than general purpose [free] lanes.”
Effect on major local roads: “There’s been no detailed evaluation of the interchanges and connections to local arterials. The DEIS doesn’t consider what will happen to roads like Connecticut Avenue and Colesville Road, when more traffic is sent to them faster.”
Impact on environment: Saying that I-495 already has “serious impacts on Rock Creek Park,” Elrich added: “While those impacts haven’t been addressed for decades, this project certainly threatens to make those impacts worse. We’re all baffled by the claim that this is an environmentally friendly project when the likelihood is that it induces more people to drive.”
Sharing of toll revenue: “While we are working with the state in trying to negotiate the payments on how they would handle tolls, we have no assurance that we would get adequate money from the state in any toll arrangement that would allow us to build transit that might otherwise mitigate some of this impact.”
“So, if…the predetermined view of the state [is] that they’re going to go through with this [project] anyway, we’re going to continue to work with you,” Elrich said. “But we need to look at everything from the environmental impact to the impact on the roads that this thing is going to empty into, to the certainty about how the local jurisdictions will receive tolls in order to pay for alternative infrastructure.”