UPDATED: Environmental impact statement gives six alternatives for I-495/I-270 widening

UPDATED: Environmental impact statement gives six alternatives for I-495/I-270 widening

Report on toll lane project, two years in preparation, totals nearly 18,000 pages

| Published:
270-resized

Traffic on Interstate 270

File photo

This story was updated at 7:35 p.m. July 10, 2020, with more information about the draft environmental impact statement.

A draft environmental impact statement on Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to widen I-495 and I-270 using toll lanes was released Friday morning after more than two years of work on the document.

It was posted to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s P3 (public-private partnership) website, https://495-270-p3.com/deis/#DEIS

The document runs more than 17,900 pages, including a 350-page overview of the findings and 19 accompanying technical reports totaling 17,560 pages.

The length of the DEIS late Thursday prompted U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, along with U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park and Anthony Brown of Prince George’s County, to write to state and federal officials asking for an extension of the 90 days currently allowed for public comment on the document.

Citing “the current difficult circumstances of the COVID-19 epidemic,” the four legislators urged the involved federal and state agencies “to extend the public comment period to a period of at least 120 days in order to ensure genuine public access, broad awareness of the process, and serious public engagement with the issues raised.”

Hogan first unveiled the controversial I-495/I-270 widening project in late 2017 as an effort to relieve traffic congestion in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.

It is estimated to cost as much as $11 billion — relying on private firms to construct the project and recoup their investment through toll revenues on new “managed lanes.”

The release of the DEIS is certain to reignite debate over many of the objections raised to the project by county officials and residents and environmental advocacy groups over the past two and a half years.

The renewed debate is also likely to be shadowed by two recent developments: the problems plaguing the light rail Purple Line, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Purple Line is being constructed under a public-private partnership (P3), the same arrangement foreseen for the I-495/I-270 project.

The private consortium constructing the Purple Line has been embroiled in a dispute with the state over who is responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns, prompting the builders to threaten to walk away from the project. Critics have raised the prospect of similar problems befalling the I-495/I-270 P3, which Hogan has vowed repeatedly will be built at no cost to taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the agencies primarily responsible for putting together the DEIS — the Federal Highway Administration and the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) — acknowledged that the long-term impact on car and transit ridership — and, ultimately, on the toll revenue needed to underwrite the I-495/I-270 widening — is currently uncertain.

“We are aware of the reduced traffic on interstates such as I-495 and I-270 due to the COVID stay-at-home order,” they write in the DEIS. “… SHA also acknowledges the uncertainty surrounding post-shutdown traffic levels and transit use. There is no definitive traffic model to predict how this unprecedented global pandemic will affect long-term traffic projections and transit use.”

The DEIS identifies six alternatives retained for detailed study — ARDS in bureaucrat-speak — as options for widening I-495 and I-270, but does not identify a “preferred alternative” for doing so. That will not take place until late in the spring of 2021, when a final environmental impact statement is issued following public comment on the DEIS being received and evaluated.

That is also when the state hopes to select the private firm or consortium of firms to build the first phase of the project — which extends from I-370 down I-270 and west on I-495 to the American Legion Bridge.

The first phase of the project, authorized by the Maryland Board of Public Works earlier this year, also includes a rebuilding of the bridge in cooperation with Virginia to widen it.

However, the DEIS released Friday also encompasses two later phases of the project not yet approved by the Board of Public Works — including the section of I-495 through Bethesda and Silver Spring, where the potential impact on private property and public parkland has made the widening proposal particularly controversial.

The sections of the DEIS dealing with that area, along with portions of adjacent Prince George’s County, are certain to trigger intense debate as the document is scrutinized in the coming weeks.

The six options for widening I-495 and I-270 identified in the DEIS have been modified somewhat from a similar number of “screened alternatives” presented for public discussion in early 2019.

One, dubbed Alternative 5, would have had less of a physical footprint than the other options. It proposed building only one toll lane in either direction on I-495, while converting a current high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane to a toll lane on I-270.

The other five “build alternatives” on the table involved two toll lanes in either direction on I-495, including the stretch through Bethesda and Silver Spring where the right-of-way narrows.

However, Alternative 5 was discarded after an analysis found “it would perform the worst of the screened alternatives for most metrics used to evaluate existing traffic and traffic growth and trip reliability,” according to the DEIS.

The report says Alternative 5 also “failed to meet the goal of financial viability, as it would require a significant public subsidy to deliver” — thereby running afoul of Hogan’s pledge to deliver the project without taxpayer dollars.

The DEIS replaces Alternative 5 with a compromise option labeled 9M, which proposes two High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes for both I-270 and I-495. An exception is the section of I-495 between the I-270 Western Spur and I-95, which takes in the top of the Beltway through Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The DEIS said this option was evaluated and found to be a “reasonable alternative.”

HOT lanes permit high-occupancy vehicles to travel at no cost, while one- or two-passenger vehicles are generally charged tolls.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission — which owns much of the park acreage along I-495 that could be affected by the widening project — will meet in a virtual session on Wednesday. M-NCPCC staffers are expected to present a response to the DEIS findings at that meeting.

In mid-2019, M-NCPPC and Montgomery County government officials sought to convince the Maryland Department of Transportation and SHA to add Md. 200 — the Intercounty Connector (ICC) — to the alternatives retained for detailed study in the DEIS.

That option was intended to route traffic coming from the north to the ICC, then down I-270 to the American Legion Bridge — lessening traffic on the Beltway and pre-empting the need to widen the stretch of I-495 through Bethesda and Silver Spring.

But state officials ultimately declined to include the ICC option as one of the final alternatives in the DEIS. M-NCPPC officials are expected to strongly dispute both the methodology and substance of the study’s conclusions on this front at next week’s session.

The DEIS acknowledges that “in the near term, the premise of this alternative has merit” due to the fact that the ICC has been underused since its opening nearly a decade ago.

But the DEIS also contends this proposal did not meet the study’s “purpose and need” of accommodating long-term traffic growth by 2040, saying that “the traffic analysis results indicated that the [Md.] 200 diversion alternative would perform worse than most of the screened alternatives.”

All told, the DEIS examines 48 miles of interstate highway, including I-495 from the American Legion Bridge to Md. 5 in Prince George’s County near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The annual average daily traffic on the Maryland section of I-495 now approaches 260,000 vehicles, as is also the case on I-270.

While the scope of the DEIS includes I-270 north to I-370, it does not include the section of I-270 that continues to Frederick. That section, where an expansion could affect the Monocacy National Battlefield, is slated to be the subject of a separate environmental impact statement.

The federal and state agencies with jurisdiction over the DEIS — an assessment required under federal law for all construction projects with the potential for a major environmental impact — will hold four virtual hearings to allow for public comment. Those will take place on Aug. 18, Aug. 20, Aug. 25 and Sept. 3.

Two in-person hearings are scheduled. The first is in Prince George’s County on Sept. 1. The second is in Rockville on Sept. 10.

In addition to being accessible online, hard copies of the DEIS and accompanying technical reports will be available for examination at Maryland Department of Transportation offices throughout Montgomery County, as well as the West Bethesda and Rockville post offices.

While local libraries remain closed due to the pandemic, copies of the DEIS also will be available in trailers in the parking lots of several library branches — including Chevy Chase, Davis (North Bethesda), Kensington Park and Potomac.

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