2021 | Transportation

UPDATED: I-270/I-495 widening project clears hurdles at Board of Public Works

Franchot, viewed as swing vote, sided with governor to support project

share this

The Board of Public Works at Wednesday's meeting. Treasurer Nancy Kopp, left, voted against a pre-development agreement for the I-270/I-495 widening project. Gov. Larry Hogan, center, and Comptroller Peter Franchot, right, voted for it.

Photos by Steve Bohnel

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2021, to include more comments from the meeting. It was updated at 3:45 p.m. to clarify the number of people who supported and opposed the project. 

The Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved a pre-development contract and lease between state transportation agencies for the I-270 and I-495 widening project, a proposal that has pitted several Montgomery County leaders against Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration.

On the three-member board, Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot — who, heading into the meeting, was seen as the swing vote — voted in support of the measures. Treasurer Nancy Kopp voted against them.

The actions approved Wednesday do the following:

  • The state will enter into a pre-development contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners. That is the coalition of private companies that would work with the state on engineering and design work to build the project. The coalition includes Transurban, the Australian-based company that would operate the tolls.
  • A 60-year lease was signed between the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority, a piece needed to allow toll lanes between the American Legion Bridge and Frederick.

Franchot asked several clarifying questions of Transportation Secretary Greg Slater before the vote. Afterward, Franchot said he’s heard from many supporters and opponents of the project, including in his own neighborhood in Takoma Park.

“I walk down my street at home and half my neighbors come out of their houses with strong opinions [for and against],” Franchot said. 

But he added that he supports the project because it is a proposal that finally addresses traffic congestion in the region, something that hasn’t happened for years.

“We have to identify what is available in front of us. Kicking the can down a highly congested road isn’t an option,” said Franchot, who is running in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor.

Even though Kopp was the lone “no” vote, she was optimistic about Slater overseeing the project.

“I have great faith,” Kopp told Slater. “You are a planner. And I have great faith that this will be planned to the extent possible. But I think it’s a mistake not to be doing it with the full information [from] the fiscal impact to the environmental impact and the public discussion.” 

Hogan did not make any comments before the vote.

The proposal has been a contentious topic for Montgomery County and state leaders this year.

In May, the Department of Transportation removed a large portion of I-495 that would be widened.

The project’s first phase includes reconstructing the American Legion Bridge and constructing two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction from the bridge to I-370. The price tag for it is about $6 billion.

The National Capital Region Transportation Board voted in June to remove the project from an air quality conformity analysis as part of the board’s long term transportation plan. That put the project at risk for losing federal approval and funding.

But after some board members were removed and replaced, and some vacancies were filled, the board reversed course in July, putting the project back on track for federal approval and funding.

At a rally held before Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting, County Executive Marc Elrich, Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, Del. Jared Solomon (D-Chevy Chase), environmental advocates and others voiced their opposition to the project.

Opponents of a plan to widen I-270 and I-495 gathered outside the Treasury building in Annapolis Wednesday morning.

“This is designed to give a premium ride to anyone who can afford it,” Elrich said about how expensive he thinks the toll lanes might be.

Jane Lyons, the Maryland advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the plan is fiscally irresponsible  for Maryland taxpayers.

She said it uses flawed traffic modeling and doesn’t account for future changes in commuting due to the coronavirus pandemic, like telecommuting. There are also opportunities to further expand transit in the region, instead of widening a highway, she said.

“This doesn’t take into consideration … all the options that are on the table,” Lyons said.

More than 50 people signed up to testify at a public hearing before the Board of Public Works votes. According to Susan O’Brien, the director of communications for Franchot’s office, 32 people testified in support and 18 in opposition.

Supporters included general contractors, representatives of real estate organizations and labor unions. They said the project was needed to shorten commute times and that it would bring high-paying jobs to the region.

Opponents said that they were still concerned about the project’s impacts on the environment and that the public-private partnership would leave the state in a poor financial position.

Elrich said he was still concerned the public-private partnership would be too costly. He added that the state should seriously be considering looking at federal funding that would soon be available due to Congress passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

“If I were county executive and did not try to get money from [the state] or from the federal government for projects that I thought could be funded, I’d be making a serious mistake,” Elrich said.

State Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Rockville), who represents Rockville and Gaithersburg, was also opposed.

She expressed multiple concerns: possible high tolls for commuters, the way the governor’s office persuaded votes to change on the Transportation Planning Board and that an environmental impact study of the project wasn’t complete. She said many commuters pre-pandemic are now teleworking permanently.

She called any potential changes to the project like “putting lipstick on a pig.” 

“This is a pig. There is no amendment that can put lipstick on this project and make it acceptable for our taxpayers, for our commuters, for our environment,” Kagan said. 

But many contractors and business leaders, including those from Montgomery County, supported the project. The first to do so was Marilyn Balcombe, the president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce.

The public-private partnership was a necessary tool to help pay for the overall project, said Balcombe, a candidate for County Council District 2. It will help spur business activity in upper Montogmery County, she said.

“I hope you’ll understand the impact that significant traffic on I-270 has on my community, which is the epicenter of I-270. … Congestion makes our local economy much more difficult,” Balcombe said.

James Hand, owner of Concrete General, a concrete contractor based in Gaithersburg, said traffic costs his employees valuable time as they miss multiple family events due to heavy congestion along I-270.

It’s also affected his business, as concrete can’t make it to job sites on time and other workers can’t get to those job sites, he said. 

“It’s hard to imagine the amount of time and money wasted sitting on the road,” Hand said.

Elrich and the Montgomery County Council previously urged the Board of Public Works to delay their votes due to financial concerns about the project. They said the state’s bond counsel and financial advisor need to review the public-private partnership and report to Hogan and the General Assembly.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com