2021 | Transportation

Regional transportation panel not supporting I-270/I-495 widening project

Board’s vote of opposition could prevent federal funding

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A regional transportation planning board voted Wednesday to make it more difficult for the I-270 and I-495 widening project to receive federal funds.

MDOT

This story was updated at around 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 16, 2021, to include comments from County Council President Tom Hucker and County Executive Marc Elrich.

A regional transportation board vote Wednesday will make it more difficult for a proposal to widen I-495 and I-270 to receive federal funding.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board decided to remove that plan from a list of proposals that will be studied for air quality, part of an overall process needed to obtain that funding.

Many Maryland elected officials — including representatives from Montgomery County and Rockville — supported removing the I-270 and I-495 widening plan from a list of projects to undergo a “Air Quality Conformity Analysis.” The Maryland Department of Transportation and many Virginia officials opposed it. 

On Wednesday, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board was considering the highway project change as an overall part of a discussion about Visualize 2045, the “federally mandated, long-range transportation plan for the National Capital Region,” according to the board’s website.

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. 

County Council Member Evan Glass, Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and Gary Erenrich, a county official representing County Executive Marc Elrich, all supported removing the highway plan from the resolution and analysis.

Earl Lewis, the deputy secretary for policy, planning, & enterprise services within the Maryland Department of Transportation, and multiple Virginia Department of Transportation officials, including Chief Deputy Commissioner Rob Cary, opposed the move.

It’s unclear how much the vote will impact the project, but Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for MDOT, criticized the decision, calling it a vote “against easing congestion across the American Legion Bridge,” “against providing reliable bus service” across the bridge and “against transit funding from toll revenue for local jurisdictions.”

“It’s a vote against private investment that would unlock state and federal funding in the Transportation Trust Fund for projects across the state,” Henson added in a prepared statement.

“Maryland is not prepared to give up on any of that, and will continue to work toward solutions that will provide congestion relief in the National Capital Region for today and for generations to come.”

Overall, 16 people on the National Capital Region Transportation Planning voted Wednesday meeting to remove the project from the analysis, while 13 people voted to keep it in. Four members abstained.

The board’s staff then calculated a weighted vote, meaning some members’ decision carried more impact than others. The weighted vote, which determined the overall outcome, was about 9.2 for removing the project from the analysis and 5.7 against, according to Lyn Erickson, plan development and coordination program director for the board. 

Kanti Srikanth, the staff director of the Transportation Planning Board, said it would be difficult for the board’s staff and its members to reintroduce the project as part of an air quality process at a later date.

In an interview, Glass acknowledged that state officials could still proceed without federal funding, but said the board’s decision Wednesday reflects its overall feelings about the project.

“My understanding is it doesn’t need federal funding, but this essentially is a vote of no confidence, and our action prevents the federal government from approving the environmental analysis,” Glass said. 

“The ball is in the governor’s court, and he will have to decide the environmental impact of this project and if he wants it to move forward,” he added.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Wednesday. 

County Council President Tom Hucker said in an interview that Wednesday’s decision signifies the first time county lawmakers have had a formal say on the overall I-270 and I-495 widening project. He added that even if state officials still move forward without federal dollars, the board’s vote didn’t help.

It’s not envisioned to, but it needs federal approval whether or not it needs federal money,” Hucker said when asked about the federal funding piece.

Elrich said in an interview that the vote showed there is opposition to the project outside Montgomery County, and believes it’s a “huge impediment” to Hogan and others who want to move the project forward.

After the vote Wednesday, Lewis lamented the board’s decision, calling it a serious mistake for the Washington, D.C., region and beyond. 

“It’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to find alternatives that would do anywhere near as much to help hundreds of thousands of people,” Lewis said.

There was some tension later, as Cary tried to amend part of the widening project back in, including rebuilding the American Legion Bridge, during a vote on a broader resolution about Visualize 2045. The board’s legal staff had previously ruled that that motion was out of order.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Bethesda), a board member who supported the decision to remove the project from the air quality analysis, cut in during Cary’s plea to Board Chair Chris Allen: “The motion was out of order, Mr. Cary, as are you.”

Gov. Hogan originally proposed the I-270 and I-495 widening plan in late 2017. He has consistently said the project will reduce traffic congestion in the region, and that doing nothing will only worsen the issue.

The project changed considerably in May, when the Maryland Department of Transportation announced the first phase of the public private partnership would focus 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.

It also included those managed lanes in a small segment along I-495 from west of the spur to the American Legion bridge.

Previously, the first phase would have included toll lanes east of the I-270 spur all the way to near Md. 5, southeast of Washington D.C.

Maryland Transportation Authority board members gave preliminary approval to multiple aspects of the project earlier this month, including the selection of the developer, Accelerate Maryland Partners LLC. That developer consists of Transurban and Macquarie Capital as lead project developer and equity members involved in the project.

Accelerate Maryland Partners was competing against other developers, including Cintra, a Spanish firm, for the project. In March, Cintra filed a protest against Accelerate’s winning bid, claiming state officials chose a team who used “unreasonably low assumptions for construction costs,” The Washington Post reported

The project could face a court battle, depending on how Cintra chooses to proceed after the MDTA board’s vote earlier this month.

Opponents of the project noted this in a rally against the project in Rockville earlier this month. They said state officials are rushing the project through after selecting Transurban, the company under Accelerate Maryland, as part of the winning bid.

The Board of Public Works, which consists of the state’s governor, comptroller and treasurer, has final votes over the widening project. The project was not on its agenda Wednesday, and it’s not clear when it will next discuss it.

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