Montgomery County officials reacted Thursday with a blend of surprise, elation and disbelief to Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal for a roughly $9 billion project that will include adding toll lanes on the Beltway and Interstate 270.
The multijurisdictional plan that spans more than 100 miles of roadway is meant to ease the traffic backups that bog motorists on the state’s largest thoroughfares, Hogan said. To pull off the undertaking, the state will rely on business partners to help build, finance and maintain the improvements. Hogan said it will represent North America’s largest public-private highway project.
The Republican governor said the plan won’t require approval from the state Legislature and shouldn’t require significant land acquisitions.
Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Kensington) said he’s not so sure.
“I don’t know how you add four lanes of capacity on the entire Beltway, entire 270—without the need to take any land, any houses, any businesses,” Madaleno, a Democrat running for governor, said following the Gaithersburg announcement.
County Council member Nancy Floreen had a more favorable response to the news.
“I am thrilled to death,” she said in a phone interview. “I really believe this is the way the region needs to go, and my hat is off to the governor for getting this going.”
Hogan said his plan calls for adding four toll lanes—two in each direction—along I-270 from Frederick to the Beltway and two new toll lanes in each direction along the entire Maryland section of Interstate 495.
A graphic on display at the press conference showed the new lanes running between existing lanes, but it was unclear if the depiction was of I-270 or I-495 and if the image represented actual project plans or was simply for illustrative purposes.
Here's a map of Hogan's relief plan pic.twitter.com/TvWr45lIEQ
— Bethany Rodgers (@BethRodgersBB) September 21, 2017
A third element of Hogan's initiative would involve widening and taking possession of Interstate 295, which is now under the purview of the National Park Service. Hogan said he has met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to discuss transferring the roadway to the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Hogan said he directed the state transportation secretary Thursday to put out a request for information from the business community, the first step in finding a private partner. Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said it will take about three months to gather responses.
It will be about 18 months before state officials have a project timeline, Rahn estimated.
Madaleno questioned Hogan’s assertion that the proposal doesn’t need the state Legislature’s support for the undertaking; to forge a public-private partnership, the governor must bring his proposal to lawmakers for input, he said.
Hogan spokeswoman Hannah Marr wrote in an email the Maryland General Assembly’s role in the process is to review and comment on a public-private proposal. She said assuming ownership of I-295 likely would require some kind of congressional approval.
The state of Virginia already has formed public-private partnerships to open toll lanes along Interstate 95 and I-495. Hogan said the projects have shortened commute times for Virginians and pumped billions of dollars into the state’s economy.
Floreen said she agrees that Maryland should follow the example of its neighbor to the south.
“We’ve been drooling over the work that’s happening in Virginia, and now it’s time for Maryland to catch up,” she said.
A public-private partnership is the only way to initiate the type of large-scale transportation project that the I-270 corridor needs, she added. The state lacks the political will to raise the gas tax or create a regional tax to fund the effort on its own, she said.
Earlier this year, Hogan announced a roughly $100 million plan to reduce traffic congestion on I-270. The work includes adding and reconfiguring lanes and posting variable digital speed limits to minimize the differences between lowest and highest vehicle speeds. The work is slated to begin next week with resurfacing and restriping on the highway spur that leads to the outer loop of the Beltway.
Floreen said she thought Thursday’s announcement related to that initiative, which she said falls far short of solving the thoroughfare’s problems. She was glad to find the announcement was for something much broader.
Council member George Leventhal had a warm initial response to Hogan’s idea and said it matches what he and many advocates have long been discussing. He added that he hopes the project plans include a transit component and said one approach could be allowing buses to travel for free in toll lanes.
The Action Committee for Transit, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports public transit in Montgomery County, blasted Hogan’s plan as an antiquated approach to modern transportation dilemmas.
“Pavement attracts drivers,” said Tracey Johnstone, a Chevy Chase resident and an ACT board member.
Johnstone said adding highway capacity will simply bring more cars to the road and result in more noise, worse air quality and higher gas prices. A better solution to I-270 gridlock is improving the MARC train system that links Frederick to D.C., she said.
U.S. Rep. John Delaney, who chairs the Fix I-270 coalition, a task force that studies ways of reducing congestion, said he is looking forward to studying Hogan’s plan and is pleased the state is prioritizing the road.
“The horrendous traffic on I-270 has been a quality of life and productivity tax on individuals and businesses in my district,” Delaney (D-6th), who is running for president in 2020, said in a prepared statement.
Traffic volumes on I-270 just north of the split are among the highest in the state, with more than 260,000 average daily trips recorded by the Maryland State Highway Administration.
But the congressman said the state can’t afford to lose any free lanes, arguing that “everyone should have a right to get around.”
Hogan said all existing lanes will continue to be free, and motorists will only pay to drive in the new toll lanes.
While Leventhal said he liked what he’d heard of Hogan’s announcement, he wrote on Facebook that he wished it hadn’t arrived on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Leventhal said in a phone interview that he didn’t attend the governor’s event and was in synagogue at the time.
Madaleno also took issue with the timing of the event, which was held on a hillside next to a Gaithersburg park-and-ride.
“To announce this sort of massive project on a holy day of obligation for … half of my colleagues who represent Montgomery County demonstrates a lack of understanding of the community,” he said.
When asked to respond to the criticism, Marr wrote that the governor “wishes all those observing Rosh Hashanah a very happy new year.”
Staff writer Andrew Metcalf contributed to this report.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com.