2021 | Transportation

UPDATE: Regional planning board reverses course, votes to include I-270/I-495 plan in air-quality study

Board voted last month to remove project, causing debate between county officials, Gov. Larry Hogan

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This story was updated at around 4:50 p.m. on Wednesday, June 21, 2021 to include comments from county and state officials.

A regional transportation board reversed course Wednesday and voted to include Gov. Larry Hogan’s I-270/I-495 widening plan in an air-quality analysis — necessary for the project to receive federal approval and funding.

Last month, the Transportation Planning Board voted to remove that project from an air-quality analysis, sparking a debate between Hogan and county officials on the merits of the plan, whether other state projects would be affected and how overall regional road congestion should be improved. 

After maneuvering in recent weeks that led to new members and new outlooks, the board — in a weighted process, meaning some members’ votes were worth more than others — voted 10.6 to 4.3 to keep the project in the air-quality review.

Twenty-eight people voted for an air-quality review for the project, and 10 people voted against it. 

An “Air Quality Conformity Analysis” involves federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and state partners. Transportation projects must meet national and state air-quality standards, including long-term emissions testing and other requirements under the Clean Air Act.

On Tuesday, five Montgomery Council Members wrote a statement indicating that they now supported advancing the highway project, meaning the council’s Planning Board vote would change from no last time to yes this time.

The five council members — Gabe Albornoz, Hans Riemer, Andrew Friedson, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice — responded to a letter from Transportation Secretary Greg Slater.

Slater’s letter indicated that money from the developer of the I-270/I-495 widening project and tolls now would be used for county transportation projects, including the Corridor Cities Transitway upcounty and bus rapid transit along Md. 355.

Because of this, Glenn Orlin, a senior legislative analyst representing Montgomery County, voted on Wednesday to include the project as part of an “Air Quality Performance Analysis” in Visualize 2045, the board’s long-term regional plan for transportation projects.

Council Member Evan Glass, who usually represents the council on the Transportation Planning Board, was absent from Wednesday’s meeting. 

County Executive Marc Elrich and state Del. Marc Korman voted no, maintaining the same position as the June vote. State Sen. Nancy King, a new member on the board, voted yes. The Maryland State Senate seat on the planning board had been vacant in June and May. 

In a news conference with reporters after the vote, Elrich said local leaders were put under great pressure before Wednesday’s decision. He reiterated his position that county leaders were still trying to compromise with state officials to craft a project that would better serve the region.

Many state delegates and senators, who signed on to a recent letter asking the board to hold firm on its decision from June, are rightfully concerned about the financing aspects of the project, Elrich said.

“Those concerns won’t go away,” Elrich said. “Hopefully, the Board of Public Works will put a microscope on the financing of this project, because every dollar they approve is one dollar that’s going to come out of somebody riding that road’s pocket.” 

The divide among county officials also existed between leaders of Gaithersburg and Rockville. Gaithersburg City Councilman Neil Harris voted to include the project in the air quality analysis Wednesday. 

Last month, Deputy City Manager Dennis Enslinger voted to keep the project in the air quality analysis. Enslinger was voting because Harris was not present at June’s meeting.

Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton voted Wednesday not to put the project back in the air quality analysis, consistent with her vote last month.

Harris shared King’s view that residents upcounty needed traffic relief, and that Hogan’s plan would help provide that.

But Newton sided with Korman and Elrich, stating that residents could face high tolls and that the project does not include enough emphasis on transit projects needed to combat congestion long-term. 

Korman said he could respect why some of the planning board’s members changed their votes on the project, if they were basing those decisions on “the merits” of the project.

But if it were for any other reasons — including an ad from a Hogan-backed political committee — that was a mistake, he added.

“If you’re changing your vote because of dark money ads put out by a politician, that’s probably the biggest mistake of all,” Korman said. “I hope those of you who voted a certain way last month are changing your votes for the right reasons.”

King, however, said traffic levels are returning to pre-pandemic levels, and the project would help upcounty residents who face delays due to traffic. She said it took 40 minutes to go about 6 miles from Montgomery Village Avenue to Shady Grove Road.

“I don’t know how much worse it can get, but traffic is alive and well,” King said. 

The passion of the issue was heard in Korman’s and King’s votes: Korman with a “no thank you,” and King with a “definite yes.” 

The project still needs approval from the state’s Board of Public Works, which consists of Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp. It’s not clear when the project will be on a Board of Public Works agenda.

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