Montgomery Official Suggests Suing State over 270/495 Lane-Widening
Local officials challenge state’s rejection of traffic-mitigation alternatives
Members of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission meet with Maryland Department of Transportation officials at a meeting on Wednesday.
Photo by Kate Masters
Local planning officials are considering litigation against the Maryland Department of Transportation after a contentious meeting on Wednesday over the state’s I-270/I-495 lane-widening proposal.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCCPC) voted unanimously to reaffirm a June decision rejecting the state’s final proposals for improving the two highways.
Those “alternatives for detailed study” (ARDS) detail five ways MDOT could expand lanes and improve traffic along the transit corridor. The final alternatives will go through a detailed analysis before the state selects a final plan.
One alternative suggests adding two express toll lanes in either direction on I-495 and one express toll lane in each direction on I-270. Another suggests adding two high-occupancy toll lanes in each direction along both highways.
The state’s five alternatives — other than a required “no build” option — all involve adding toll lanes along both highways, including stretches adjacent to Montgomery County parkland.
State planners met with the commission on Wednesday to explain their decision to drop two alternatives local members previously supported. One, known as Alternative 5, would add a single high-occupancy toll lane in each direction along each highway — lessening the impact of construction.
The second alternative — added in July — would have diverted westbound travelers on I-95 onto the Intercounty Connector, eliminating the need for expanding the Beltway in Montgomery County. The commission asked the state to consider the option to protect federal- and county-owned parkland surrounding the northeastern stretch of I-495.
The parkland is better known as Capper-Cramton land. The federal government acquired it almost 90 years ago to build a comprehensive park system in Maryland and D.C. Jurisdiction falls to M-NCCPC and the National Capital Planning Commission, which also rejected the elimination of the ICC alternative in a Nov. 7 letter.
Jeff Folden, the deputy director of the public-private partnership program for MDOT, told commissioners on Wednesday that the two alternatives weren’t feasible for reducing congestion. On Alternative 5, “it had the worst results from a traffic analysis standpoint,” he said in the meeting.
The ICC alternative would add miles for commuters and worsen traffic in other parts of the region, he added.
But the state’s findings were vehemently disputed by commissioners, who blasted MDOT for a lack of communication with local agencies.
“It is really hard to tick me off,” said Commission Chair Elizabeth Hewlett, who also sits on the Planning Board for Prince George’s County. “But I don’t think you’re hearing our concerns.”
Tension between M-NCCPC commissioners and MDOT officials has grown for months. When the commission issued its first ARDS rejection in June, members outlined a series of concerns in a June 12 letter, questioning why certain alternatives were eliminated.
“We were concerned because it seemed like lane-widening was a foregone conclusion,” Carol Rubin, the commission’s special project manager for the I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study, said after the meeting on Monday. “From the very beginning, [Gov. Larry Hogan] was presenting toll lanes as they only way to improve traffic in the region.”
In a June 28 response, Lisa Choplin — the director for the state’s public-private partnership program — accused the commission of displaying a “fundamental lack of understanding” of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The federal law outlines the environmental review process for major public works projects.
Hewlett, on Wednesday, blasted the letter as “incredibly unprofessional” and insulting to the local commission.
“Don’t ever write us a letter like that again,” she said. “Never. It was very demeaning when we’re trying to do our jobs for the 2 million-plus people who live in our counties.”
Commissioners have repeatedly asked the state to release the analysis it used to eliminate Alternative 5 and the ICC diversion. On Wednesday, Folden and Choplin said the state eliminated both alternatives after studying projected toll revenues, traffic patterns, and environmental impacts.
But MDOT officials have never shared those findings with collaborating agencies, including M-NCCPC, despite “repeated requests” from commissioners, Rubin said. That lack of information has been the commission’s basis for rejecting the state’s final alternatives.
In a phone interview after the meeting, Choplin said the state would release a draft environmental impact statement in the spring.
The report will detail more information on the state’s financial analysis, traffic and revenue studies, and environmental surveys, she said — information that could jeopardize the bidding process for the toll lanes if it were released too soon.
MDOT still plans to move forward with the final alternatives, even without agreement from the M-NCCPC, she added.
But Vice Chair Casey Anderson, who also heads the county’s Planning Board, said the commission could slow the process by refusing to deed over parkland or challenging the state’s adherence to the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The way things are headed, we have to be seriously thinking about litigating,” he said after the meeting.