Improvements to American Legion Bridge Threaten Showdown Over Parkland

Improvements to American Legion Bridge Threaten Showdown Over Parkland

Local officials weren’t notified about plan to reprioritize toll lanes along I-495

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Bridge

Traffic along the American Legion Bridge, captured by Maryland traffic cameras in 2017.

Maryland traffic cameras

Montgomery County officials said they were given no advance notice before Gov. Larry Hogan, on Tuesday, announced a partnership with Virginia to widen the American Legion Bridge.

The lack of communication left many frustrated, confused and unable to respond to details of the plan, which is likely to reignite a political controversy over widening certain sections of I-495.

“It’s frustrating,” said Carol Rubin, a special project manager for Montgomery County and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) for the I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study.

“Because we could have been better prepared,” she continued. “We could have been standing up there together. But that seems to be the [modus operandi] of this administration — just taking us totally by surprise.”

Hogan announced the partnership with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. County Council Member Tom Hucker, chairman of the council’s Transportation & Environment Committee, said local officials received an email with the news less than 10 minutes before Hogan’s appearance at a regional transportation forum.

Montgomery County stakeholders were given notice Tuesday morning, “at the same time the public announcement was made,” affirmed Michael Ricci, Hogan’s director of communications.

Local officials didn’t formally address the plan until several hours afterwards, when Montgomery Community Media — following a separate press conference on economic development — asked County Executive Marc Elrich and Council President Nancy Navarro to respond to Hogan’s announcement.

“We’re trying to digest what he’s done,” Elrich replied.

Navarro and Hucker, in separate interviews, said they were still looking over details of the proposal.

At surface level, the plan appeared to address several concerns that county officials and the M-NCPPC previously raised about Hogan’s phased approach to adding toll lanes on I-270 and the Capital Beltway — the cornerstone of his administration’s transportation policy.

After a June vote by the Maryland Board of Public Works, Hogan agreed to focus the initial phase of the project on widening sections of I-270. But traffic experts criticized the plan, warning that adding lanes to I-270 without simultaneously widening the Beltway and the American Legion Bridge would funnel more cars onto an already-congested stretch of highway.

Hogan’s announcement on Tuesday allayed many of those concerns. In partnership with Virginia, he said, Maryland would widen the American Legion Bridge, adding four express toll lanes and reconstructing eight general purpose lanes.

Both states would also partner on widening a section of I-495 between George Washington Memorial Parkway and River Road in Montgomery County. Under the new proposal, the Beltway would be widened at the same time as the southern section of I-270, addressing fears of creating new traffic bottlenecks.

The M-NCPPC always supported widening the bridge and the western portion of I-495 that runs to River Road and towards the I-270 spur, Rubin said. In a statement on Tuesday evening, Elrich also wrote that he was “pleased” to hear the governor would be addressing traffic concerns on the American Legion Bridge.

But a less-publicized aspect of the plan has been repeatedly rejected by county officials and seems certain to ignite new controversy later this month, when M-NCPPC officials meet with the Maryland Department of Transportation to discuss Beltway expansion. 

Under Tuesday’s proposal, Maryland will also reprioritize toll lanes along the northeastern section of I-495, up to the interchange with I-95 in Prince George’s County. Expanding the Beltway in both directions — toward River Road and I-270 and toward I-95 — will be bid to private concessionaires as a single package, MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson confirmed.

Toll lanes along I-270 will be bid separately, she said. The entire proposal still has to go before the state’s Board of Public Works for approval, with plans to begin construction by 2022.

“What the governor did was recognize that everything has to be done together,” Henson said in a phone interview on Tuesday evening. “We’re doing it all to make sure everything works. And we’re partnering with Virginia to show just how important this is to the entire region.”

It’s unclear how the new plan will proceed given the reprioritization of toll lanes along the northeastern stretch of I-495. “This is what I was concerned about,” Rubin wrote in an email after details of the proposal were clarified. “Neither the County nor the Commission are prepared to support express toll lanes running northeast to the I-95 interchange. We are in the middle of a NEPA study to determine what is appropriate.”

“NEPA” refers to the National Environmental Policy Act. To justify much of the construction for the lane-widening project — including portions of the route that infringe on county- and federally owned parks — the state is tasked with proving that no feasible alternatives exist and it has done everything possible to mitigate the impacts on parkland.

The northeastern portion of I-495 has long been a concern, Rubin said earlier on Tuesday, because “it’s so bounded by critical park resources,” including the federally owned Rock Creek Park and the county-owned Cabin John Park.

The M-NCPPC and the National Capital Planning Commission would need to deed parkland to the state for construction to begin. In an email, Henson wrote that the state was “working collaboratively with all agencies involved,” but neither commission was given advance notice of the governor’s proposal on Tuesday.

A showdown seems inescapable as the plan progresses. Representatives with both commissions and the Montgomery County Planning Department have already rejected the state’s efforts to drop an alternative route that would have directed travelers onto the Intercounty Connector, eliminating the need to widen I-495 in Montgomery County.

In a Nov. 7 letter to MDOT, Executive Director Marcel Acosta of the National Planning Commission wrote that the agency was not convinced the state had adequately analyzed feasible alternatives to using federal parkland.

Rubin previously stated that the county could use its land as leverage to prevent toll lanes along the Beltway that infringe onto parks.

M-NCPPC and MDOT officials will meet at the Montgomery County Parks and Planning Department in Silver Spring on Nov. 20 at 11 a.m.

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