Planners criticize proposal for I-495/I-270 widening, including possibility of public subsidy
Citing latest cost figures, planning board chair questions viability of project
Traffic on Interstate 270
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission staff on Wednesday delivered a lengthy critical response to a draft environmental impact statement released last week on the proposed widening of I-495 and I-270.
The staff’s concerns included underestimating the area affected by construction work, inadequately protecting park acreage and giving short shrift to mass transit options.
At the end of the two-hour session, a couple of commission members, including Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, raised a new point of controversy surrounding the project: the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) acknowledges that public subsidy might be needed to help pay for it.
Gov. Larry Hogan has vowed since proposing the widening project three years ago that it would be completely underwritten by private firms through toll revenue. However, the DEIS concedes that taxpayer subsidies ranging from $482 million to nearly $1.1 billion might be required if construction costs and interest rates come in higher than anticipated.
A Montgomery County commissioner, Natali Fani-Gonzalez, declared: “I’m not going to be stuck with this bill — my generation and my children’s. This is dead before arrival.”
“I think you’re right on the mark because the draft EIS shows that it will be difficult or impossible for this project to be delivered without an additional source of revenue beyond tolls,” Anderson said.
Anderson is chair of the M-NCPPC, a body of planning board members from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties that has jurisdiction over park land and facilities in both counties.
He said that “even if everything goes according to plan and there’s no increase in cost” of the I-495 widening project, there is a “parallel issue of the funding that would be required to move [Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission] water and sewer pipes.”
Anderson added that it’s “highly unlikely” that the schedule and budget will be met, “given the nature of the way these types of projects get built.”
Referring to the WSSC work, Anderson added: “My understanding is that could run into a number that has a ‘b’ in it.”
WSSC officials earlier this year pegged the expense at $2 billion for an I-495/I-270 widening project in which total costs already had been estimated at up to $11 billion.
Asked late Wednesday if the Maryland Department of Transportation or State Highway Administration had their own estimates for moving the sewer and water lines, a department spokesman emailed a statement from MDOT Secretary Gregory Slater.
“As we are still in the planning process, it is too early to determine the exact scope and cost of any utility relocations,” Slater said in the statement. “We are committed to working with our utility partners, including the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, to ensure impacts to their facilities are minimized and improvements to I-495 and I-270 are delivered in a manner to provide the best value to Marylanders.”
The six alternatives identified in the DEIS for widening I-495 and I-270 — all involving two express toll lanes or high-occupancy toll lanes in each direction — show capital costs ranging from $8.5 billion to $10 billion.
A “preferred alternative” will be identified in the spring of 2021, when MDOT/SHA officials hope to choose a private consortium to build the first phase of the widening project. It will run from the American Legion Bridge along I-495 to the so-called Western Spur of I-270, then north on I-270 to I-370.
This will occur after public comments on the nearly 18,000-page DEIS are evaluated and a final environmental impact statement is issued. Comments are due by Oct. 8.
Four teams of private companies interested in building and operating the project responded to a request for qualifications in early June.
But despite an initial July 2 deadline for a short list of finalists, state officials have yet to determine which firms will be allowed to bid.
A MDOT spokesman this week did not respond to a question on when a short list of bidders will be chosen, saying only, “We are continuing to thoroughly examine each team’s experience, qualifications and past performance to ensure any team shortlisted is highly qualified.”
One of the four interested teams includes Australia-based Transurban. Another is anchored by Spain-based Cintra. Both are global infrastructure firms that have been involved in public-private partnerships (P3) in Virginia to construct “managed lanes” financed by toll revenue.
Transurban last year paid Virginia a concession fee of $277 million in conjunction with a widening of I-95 and I-495. Cintra in 2016 gave the state an upfront payment of $500 million when it was awarded the contract for building toll lanes on I-66 outside the Beltway.
However, earlier in its experience with P3 partnerships, Virginia had to pay out about $700 million in “gap funding” to subsidize the cost of maintaining and constructing managed lanes.
Whether Maryland comes out on the receiving or paying end could be determined when the contract for the first phase of the I-495/I-270 widening project is awarded next year.
“If a state subsidy is required, it would typically be paid to the developer at the beginning of the contract,” according to the I-495/I-270 DEIS, “whereas if positive excess cash flows are anticipated, they could be paid to the state at the beginning of the contract and/or as revenue sharing payments to the state during the operation of the facility.”
Throughout the two-year process leading up to the release of the DEIS, Anderson has criticized state officials for not giving stronger consideration to mass transit alternatives. He got in a closing dig Wednesday.
“One of the reasons SHA has provided for not considering transit or other alternatives apart from additional road widening is that transit will not pay for itself in the sense that it doesn’t have a source of revenue that can cover the entire cost of a big transit project,” he said.
“But the problem is that the draft EIS makes it clear that neither can the road-widening project. So if the road-widening project doesn’t pay for itself through tolls, then it’s hard to see how the state can justify excluding transit or other non-highway widening alternatives from their [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis.”
The M-NCPPC staff presentation — led by Carol Rubin, the commission’s I-495/I-270 managed lanes project coordinator — also took issue with the DEIS treatment of mass transit.
“… There is absolutely no commitment made in writing anywhere about allowing future rail on the American Legion Bridge as the major crossing over the Potomac River on the Montgomery County side,” Rubin told the M-NCPPC. “We want to see that commitment.”
She acknowledged that pedestrian and bicycle access had been added to the design for a new wider bridge, adding, “That’s great — but it’s not enough.”
A lack of mass transit was among the major issues Rubin identified in a memo that contained more than 300 comments in response to issues in the DEIS.
The commission later unanimously accepted the memo and staff presentation as an “outline” of its position on the DEIS. They will form the basis of Anderson’s testimony at hearings in August and September.
Leading the list of staff criticisms was the DEIS’ failure to include Montgomery County’s proposal to divert traffic to the Intercounty County Connector (ICC) from the relatively narrow, highly populated stretch of I-495 through Bethesda and Silver Spring in its final “build” alternatives.
The intent of the ICC option was to reduce traffic and thereby avoid widening I-495 in an area where both private property and park land could be significantly affected.
“We believe there is insufficient analysis of the ICC alternative,” Rubin asserted as she and Stephen Aldrich, a transportation planner for the Montgomery Planning Department, suggested that state officials had undercut the ICC option by making several changes to what the county originally proposed.
Aldrich said the ICC alternative that the state studied and ultimately rejected had included adding managed toll lanes on I-95 between the ICC and I-495, along with enhanced transportation system management — such as meters for on-ramps on I-495 through Silver Spring and Bethesda.
“That was something we didn’t ask for,” Aldrich said of the changes. “Both of those encourage more traffic, not less traffic, to use the Beltway.”
He contended that state officials “really should have evaluated some of those [other] components separately.”
State officials acknowledged that the ICC currently has the capacity to absorb more traffic, but contended that it would not have the ability to mitigate traffic congestion by 2040, a goal they consider central to the “purpose and need” of the DEIS.
Right behind the ICC in the staff presentation was the issue of “limit of disturbance” (LOD). It is defined in the DEIS as “the proposed boundary within which all construction, staging, materials storage, grading, clearing, erosion and sediment control, landscaping, drainage, storm water management, noise barrier replacement/construction and related construction activities would occur.”
Also included is the impact to parks and recreational facilities.
Rubin termed the affected area outlined in the DEIS “insufficient to identify the impacts,” adding, “We believe the limit of disturbance will need to be expanded to address construction.”
Douglas Stephens, a natural resources planner for Montgomery Parks, suggested that state officials understated the area affected by the construction. “To date, MDOT SHA has been focused on simply minimizing the LOD to show the lowest impact on resources on paper — but not necessarily to achieve the lowest impact in the real world,” he said.
According to the DEIS, 130 to 135 acres of park land and open space would be in the construction zone. That is more than the 80 acres than SHA officials privately estimated would be needed for the project in earlier discussions.
M-NCPCC and county officials have suggested that up to 300 acres of parks would be affected by the widening.
As previously disclosed, most of the six widening alternatives under consideration would require taking 34 residences and four businesses. In addition, the DEIS says another 1,400 to 1,500 properties could be affected in some manner, with total right-of-way requirements for the project ranging from a little more than 310 acres to nearly 340 acres.
Central to the debate over taking park acreage for the project is the Capper-Cramton Act, passed 90 years ago at the height of the Great Depression to set aside park land in the suburban Washington region.
The law limits use of Capper-Cramton lands for other than parks. The National Capital Planning Commission would have to approve an exception, following an application by M-NCPPC as the designated guardian of this land.
“There needs to be language … in the [final environmental impact statement], in the P3 agreement, that establishes the process and the standards for which parkland avoidance, minimization and ultimately mitigation will be established,” Rubin told the commission. “[The] staff does not feel like the language that is in the DEIS is even close to meeting that commitment.”
Implicit in her statement were earlier comments from M-NCPPC and Montgomery County officials that they could refuse to convey the park acreage needed for the I-495/I-270 widening, potentially triggering a court fight that could tie up the project for years.