2021 | Transportation

On eve of key board vote, majority of County Council proclaims support for I-270/I-495 project

Council members cite letter pledging new money for county transit priorities

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This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. July 21, 2021, to correct references to the first phase of the project and to the estimated project cost.

A Montgomery County Council member plans to reverse course and vote on Wednesday to let an I-270/I-495 widening project advance, after a council majority on Tuesday urged the change.

Council Member Evan Glass wrote in a text message that he doesn’t agree with five of his colleagues, but his vote as a regional Transportation Planning Board representative on Wednesday will reflect the will of the council.

Tuesday’s statement supporting the road project — signed by Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz and Council Members Hans Riemer, Andrew Friedson, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice — cited a letter that Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater sent the council earlier in the day.

In the letter, Slater wrote that the state Department of Transportation is committed to a multimodal solution to solving regional transit issues in Montgomery County.

Part of that includes a minimum $145 million from the developer of the I-270/I-495 widening project to help pay for some transit initiatives, including the Corridor Cities Transitway upcounty and creating a bus rapid transit route along Md. 355, Slater wrote.

Slater’s letter and the council’s joint statement signals that negotiations are still occurring over the I-270/I-495 widening plan, as well as a divide among county officials.

County Council President Tom Hucker, County Executive Marc Elrich and other county officials have been vocal in their opposition to the overall plan in recent months. Elrich joined state lawmakers and municipal officials on Tuesday afternoon at a rally against the project, which largely focuses on I-270, but also includes a scaled-back stretch of I-495.

Elrich then wrote on Twitter that he is not against solutions to traffic congestion in the region, but wants them solved in the best way. He wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post further explaining that view.

Elrich and Glass represent Montgomery County on the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. The board — in a weighted vote, with some members’ votes worth more than others — voted 9.2 to 5.7 on June 16 against having the project on an air-quality review list, putting the project in danger of not getting federal funding.

Hogan and political allies sharply criticized that vote and rallied public support, calling out Elrich, Hucker and state Del. Marc Korman as obstructing a traffic-improvement project.

Since then, project proponents have tried to reshape the planning board, leading to an expected revote on Wednesday.

The public-private partnership’s first phase includes widening I-270 all the way to I-70. There will be an environmental study first up to I-370, then another up to I-70, according to Richard Parsons, a spokesman for the project.

The project includes 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.

Hogan has actively promoted the project, calling it the only viable solution to relieve traffic congestion. The initial estimated cost of the entire project was $11 billion, but when the scope was downsized, cutting out much of the I-495 portion, the estimated dropped. Now, the first phase of the project is estimated to cost $6 billion, Parsons wrote in an email. 

Opponents, particularly from Montgomery County, oppose it, claiming the overall toll structure would be costly to middle- and working-class residents and that it would not lead to long-term traffic relief.

Hogan introduced the project in 2017, but it has narrowed in scope since then — including most recently in May, when Maryland Department of Transportation officials announced most of the Capital Beltway’s removal from the first phase, but improvements could be made in later phases of the project.

The Transportation Planning Board’s vote Wednesday is important because the replacement of the American Legion Bridge is included in the first phase of the I-270/I-495 widening project. If the planning board doesn’t support the project and include it in an air-quality analysis, the bridge replacement isn’t eligible for federal funds.

Friedson, Navarro and Rice all said in interviews Tuesday that that aspect of the overall I-270/I-495 project is important for relieving congestion in the region, and part of the reason they signed on to the statement. 

Rice said Slater’s letter indicates that discussions are heading in the right direction. The support for the CCT and bus rapid transit along Md. 355 shows him state officials are thinking about bottlenecks upcounty, and not just traffic closer to Washington, D.C., he said.

“This is going to make this a more palatable project for this county and this region because of the fact that it strikes a balance,” Rice said.

Navarro said the letter shows MDOT officials are serious about transit and multimodal solutions countywide, and that compromise is still possible despite recent debate between Hogan’s administration and county officials. 

She said those who didn’t sign on to the statement — Council Members Glass, Hucker, Will Jawando and Sidney Katz — are entitled to their opinion, but she noted that a majority agrees.

Slater and MDOT’s commitment to local transportation projects in the letter were a “critical component” to make her more supportive of the overall project, but there will be more discussions, she said.

“This is not something that had necessarily been included before, so the fact that this is on record [is important]. … The CCT and BRT are two projects I have worked on for a number of years,” Navarro said.

Friedson said multiple times Tuesday that the planning board’s vote on the project is not the determining factor for whether the overall I-270/495 widening project will proceed. There are important issues that remain, including how much residents would pay to use the two toll lanes in both directions, neighborhoods near the project that would be affected and the overall impact on county taxpayers, he said.

But most importantly, the planning board’s stance could determine the fate of the American Legion Bridge, he said.

“The most important impact of the action that was taken at the Transportation Planning Board is that it made the much-needed improvements to the American Legion Bridge ineligible for federal approval and funding,” Friedson said. “That is the dynamic that we are working in.”

Glass wrote in a text message to Bethesda Beat that even though he disagrees with Friedson and others, he would follow the will of the council majority.

“We all want to relieve traffic congestion and we all want to increase public transportation, but this ‘deal’ is not it,” Glass wrote. “I simply wish that Governor Hogan had engaged local leaders from the start. The majority of the Council have spoken.”

Outside of the council majority’s statement Tuesday, state lawmakers sent a letter to the planning board asking it to hold firm on its vote from last month. A majority of the county’s state delegates and senators signed on to that letter. 

Representatives from Montgomery County on the planning board are:

  • Elrich
  • Glass
  • Korman
  • state Sen. Nancy King
  • Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton
  • Gaithersburg Council Member Neil Harris
  • Takoma Park Council Member Kacy Kostiuk

The planning board is scheduled to meet at noon on Wednesday.

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