2021 | Transportation

UPDATED: State chooses four-lane ‘high occupancy toll’ option for 495/270 widening

County official says decision comes in middle of mediation process over concerns

The Capital Beltway near the I-270 interchange in Bethesda

File photo

This article was updated at 5:09 p.m. on Jan. 27, 2021, to include comments from Casey Anderson, chair of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and of the Montgomery County Planning Board.

To relieve traffic congestion, Maryland transportation officials have selected a four-lane “high occupancy toll” design for its widening project on I-270 and I-495, or the Capital Beltway.

The build alternative — also referred to as Alternative 9 — would add two “high occupancy toll” (HOT) lanes across the American Legion Bridge to I-270 and north on I-270 to I-370.

Maryland’s State Highway Administration announced the news Wednesday in a press release.

But one Montgomery County official, who has raised concerns about the project, said the county was blindsided by the news.

Casey Anderson, chair of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and of the Montgomery County Planning Board, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the state “dropped” the news while state and county officials are in the process of addressing the county’s concerns about the project. He said officials received no notice of the state’s decision before the announcement.

“I can’t say I’m surprised that this is where they landed,” he said of the chosen alternative. “But the decision to announce that today while we’re in the middle of trying to mediate all of our issues through a process that they had proposed is a little bit frustrating.”

Anderson said the state contacted the county “months ago” to start the process. It was supposed to be a way to sort out the disagreements or narrow the number and scope of them.

“It just really raises the question of … are we trying to collaborate or are you going to unilaterally decide what you’re going to do what you want to do and we’re wasting our time?,” he said.

Anderson said he isn’t “bent out of shape” because the state didn’t give local officials a heads up.

“Dropping this on us while we’re in the middle of a discussion of how we’re going to absolve our differences, in my opinion, is not a process that’s going to build confidence,” he said.

The state’s selected build alternative also calls for adding a bicycle and pedestrian connection across the American Legion Bridge. The project’s construction will first start with the bridge.

Buses and vehicles with three or more people will be able to travel the new HOT lanes for free. Drivers traveling alone would have to pay if they used the managed lanes.

The Managed Lanes Study focuses on the bridge and I-270 as Phase 1 South.

According to the release, the state agency “will not proceed with permitting and implementation of subsequent phases until additional environmental reviews are complete with further collaboration and engagement with agencies and the public.”

The state chose the four-lane HOT lane alternative over several others, including a “no build” option and six managed lanes.

The project will be under a public-private partnership (P3) for design and development. A private partner is expected to be selected over the next year.

Although the design has been chosen for the first phase of the project, state officials have yet to publicly respond to comments from officials and the public on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The four-month public comment period ended on Nov. 9.

State officials said in Wednesday’s press release that they are continuing to consider all comments that were received and that additional analysis is “being performed as needed.”

Substantive comments will get responses in the study’s Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision, which will be completed in the fall.

Anderson said that the state choosing a design alternative before officials respond to public comments doesn’t give anyone a basis to understand the alternative.

“They’ve continued to sort of suggest that they’re open to addressing some of our concerns — big and small — but we really haven’t got resolution on any of them,” he said. “It’s totally unclear what they’re actually willing to consider versus what they have already decided. … [The announcement] doesn’t give me a lot of reasons to think that we’re going to be able to come to terms.”

The widening project has come under fire by local government officials and residents who say it would have unknown effects on the environment, harm parkland and homes, and reduce property values.

The M-NCPPC has said the alternatives are essentially the same and the limit of disturbance is underestimated.

The commission also said in its final comments that the state hasn’t identified the effect on historic resources on the potentially affected land, which does not comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.

The Montgomery County Council has pointed to concerns of uncertain environmental impacts, a lack of transit plans in the project, and the potential failure of another P3, such as the one that fell apart for the Purple Line light-rail project.

A group of 51 local and regional organizations and officials sent the state more than 200 pages of comments on the widening project in November and opposed adding the managed lanes.

The group called the DEIS and evaluation of the project “woefully insufficient” and said they don’t provide meaningful review. They also said the study was “incomplete,” “inadequate,” and “flawed.”

The U.S. Navy has also spoken strongly against the project. Capt. Mary Seymour, the commanding officer at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, wrote a letter to state officials in early November.

Although the state asserts that it will acquire Navy property for the construction of the toll roads, the Navy “will not cede any property for construction of this toll road,” Seymour wrote.

She wrote that the Navy has expressed the sentiment in multiple letters.

At the time, state officials brushed off any problems with the Navy and in a released statement, wrote that they remain confident they can work out a deal to help make it happen.

“Addressing the congestion bottleneck at the American Legion Bridge and identifying a strategy to replace this 60-year-old infrastructure element of the regional transportation network is critical to Maryland’s economic recovery and growth,” Greg Slater, secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said in Wednesday’s news release.

The HOT lanes would be added:
● Two in each direction of I-495 from south of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia cross the American Legion Bridge to west of Md. 5
● One to join an existing HOV lane converted into a HOT lane on I-270 from I-495 to north of I-370, creating to HOT lanes in each direction

As part of the alternative, there will also be expanded bus capacity at Shady Grove Metro, expanded park-and-ride facilities, and environmental “enhancements,” the state said.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.