2021 | Transportation

More than 100 gather to oppose I-270/I-495 widening plan

Local, state officials say proposal won’t solve long-term congestion

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Opponents of Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed I-270 and 495 widening project stand for a TV news shot after Tuesday's rally.

Photo by Steve Bohnel

This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. June 9, 2021, to correct that County Council President Tom Hucker met with U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Local and state officials joined dozens of community members from various organizations outside First Baptist Church of Rockville on Tuesday to oppose a plan to widen interstates 270 and 495.

The rally came hours after the Maryland Transportation Authority board of directors preliminarily approved the first phase of the plan.

The Maryland Department of Transportation changed the first phase of the I-270 and 495 widening plan in May. The public-private partnership now focuses on reconstructing the American Legion Bridge and constructing two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction from the southern end of I-270 to I-370.

The toll lanes would also be constructed in the small segment along I-495 from west of the spur to the American Legion bridge. 

To complete the toll lanes, the current high-occupancy vehicle lanes in each direction will be converted to HOT lanes, and one new lane would be constructed in each direction. Nothing would occur east of the I-270 spur, unlike the previous first phase of the plan.

MDTA board members gave preliminary approval to multiple aspects of the project Tuesday, including the selection of the developer, Accelerate Maryland Partners LLC. 

Part of the issue, The Washington Post reported — and those at the rally stated — is that there is a dispute between bidders for the project. State officials rejected a protest from Spanish firm Cintra earlier this year, but the matter could still end up in court, the Post reported Tuesday.

The Board of Public Works, which consists of the state’s governor, comptroller and treasurer, have final votes over the project.

It’s unclear when that body will next hear or act about the first phase of the proposed I-270 project. As of Tuesday evening, it wasn’t on the agenda for the board’s next meeting on June 16.

Last month, MDTA board members also approved sending the proposed toll rate schedule in the HOT lanes out to a public commenting process. The first phase of public comments ends Aug. 12.

The tolls in those circumstances for two-axle passenger vehicles would start at 20 cents a mile, with a “soft cap rate” at $1.50 and a general maximum rate of $3.76. Motorcyclists, buses and those who carpool would not pay tolls.

Soft cap rates would be applied only when traffic in the HOT lanes is traveling at more than 50 miles per hour. 

John Sales, an MDTA spokesman for the I-270 project, said the process for calculating those rates took about two years. He said it wasn’t affected by the department’s decision in May to change the project’s first phase.

“For example, at one point, we were considering a $2 soft rate cap, but later determined we can lower the cap without jeopardizing the goals of the project,” Sales wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat. “The scope of the toll setting process is for Phase 1 South, so the other changes to the NEPA Project you mentioned have not impacted the toll structure for Phase 1 South.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has said the widening project would significantly reduce congestion in the region — or traffic could get worse.

Those at the rally disagreed. Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, led the rally on Tuesday, as cars sped past on I-270.

Several elected leaders — including County Executive Marc Elrich, County Council President Tom Hucker, Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and state Sen. Will Smith (D-Silver Spring) — railed against the project, saying it would not relieve traffic congestion long-term.

In his comments to the more than 100 people gathered, Hucker repeatedly called the I-270 widening project former state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn’s “big dream” and said it focused too much on moving more cars, and not enough on moving people. 

Hucker said he and U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Bowie) recently met with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to discuss the county’s transportation proposals. Hucker listed them to the crowd, including:

  • The Corridors Cities Transitway, a bus rapid transit route connecting communities from south of Clarksburg to the Shady Grove Metro station
  • Expansion of MARC service countywide
  • Expansion of bus rapid transit north to south, and east to west across the county

Ross said in an interview that MDTA officials were trying to rush the project through because of potential environmental and financial issues the federal government could raise.

Adding a third MARC train line to serve Frederick and the surrounding areas would be better for the northern part of Montgomery County, he added.

“Building tracks is expensive … but CSX in Virginia has proved that you can deal with CSX if you’re willing to spend the money it takes to build rail infrastructure,” Ross said. “It’s not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than … $11 billion for these toll lanes.”

Newton shared a similar view. She said in an interview that if any lanes should be built, they should be in the northern part of the I-270 corridor, as it narrows from three lanes to two lanes north and south on the way to Frederick.

The entire project is not “forward-thinking” and only helps those fortunate enough to have a vehicle, Newton said. That doesn’t include many essential workers, she added.

“We have tens of thousands of people in Montgomery County who don’t own a car,” Newton said. “This will not help them, this destroys existing neighborhoods that have been here 50 years, impacts our environment, and yours and my children’s future.”

Gary Hodge, vice chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, told the crowd that the project and overall toll-lane structure are a “bad deal” for Marylanders. He said state legislators haven’t had a chance to weigh in.

Hodge said in an interview that state officials are not considering transit options beyond widening I-270 and I-495, including expanding rail and rapid bus service. 

Hodge said MDTA officials likely viewed Tuesday morning’s vote as the “drum beat” to begin finalizing and approving the project. But the fact that there is a 30-day legislative review after Tuesday’s vote means state officials and others could be called to testify, and public pressure against the project could continue to mount, he added.

Also, state legislators could pass laws to impede its progress, Hodge added.

“We’ve been on the high ground for three years, and no one has pushed us off,” Hodge said of opposition since Hogan announced the plan in September 2017. “So, does that matter in the final analysis? Well, some of the people here who serve in the legislature need to get really mad and dig in their heels and get legislation passed.”

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