State Pulls Plug on Alternative to Lane Widening in Montgomery County
MDOT officials announce decision in meeting with local officials
Opponents to Gov. Larry Hogan's I-270 lane widening project protest the plan at a meeting between the Maryland Department of Transportation and Montgomery County officials.
Photo by Kate Masters
This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 2019, to correct a reference to U.S. 29.
The Intercounty Connector Alternative — a proposal to avoid widening the Beltway through Montgomery County — has been eliminated from further study by the Maryland Department of Transportation.
The news came as an unexpected blow to county officials and community members who gathered Monday evening for a presentation on the upcoming Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP), a detailed agenda for statewide transit projects.
The ICC alternative was formally announced in July after the county successfully lobbied for the state to study its feasibility.
County Executive Marc Elrich reviewed the route with the County Council and Planning Department a month earlier. He publicly released the suggestion after the state Board of Public Works voted to begin soliciting contractors for Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen and add toll roads to parts of I-270 and the Capital Beltway.
The proposal would have eliminated the need for lane widening by diverting westbound travelers on I-95 onto the ICC, where they could connect to I-270 and then I-495 into Virginia over a rebuilt American Legion Bridge. Drivers would then bypass the Beltway’s congested Montgomery County stretch, which the state planned to address by adding lanes.
But in a meeting Monday night with Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation and the Montgomery County delegation, state transportation officials announced they no longer planned to investigate the alternative proposal.
Early findings showed that many westbound drivers along I-95 branched off into Washington, D.C., through other arteries, including U.S. 29 and Connecticut Avenue, said Greg Slater, an administrator with the State Highway Administration.
Those diversions limited the impact of the plan, according to officials.
“The initial analysis was not favorable,” Slater said in an interview after the meeting. “And from a practical standpoint, it added mileage without reducing commute times or easing congestion the way we would have hoped.”
An engineering team for the I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study spent three months analyzing the proposal, according to a statement from MDOT — the same amount of time the agency dedicated to previously recommended alternatives.
Slater said the state would still take the plan to an interagency working group for review before entirely abandoning the proposal. But in an exchange with local elected officials, Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said the ICC proposal would not be retained as an alternative to the Managed Lane Study, which focuses primarily on adding toll lanes to both highways.
The state has already abandoned proposals to add more general purpose lanes, bus rapid transit, or bus-only lanes.
It was unwelcome news for Elrich and Council Member Tom Hucker, who was heavily involved in designing the alternative. While the county never said “no” to lane widening, both said, representatives were focused on minimizing the local impact of the project.
Dozens of residents attended the meeting to protest the governor’s proposal, wielding handmade signs with slogans including “Stop Highway Hogan” and “More Trains, Less Lanes.” Many audibly hissed when state officials discussed the project. When Rahn announced that the alternative was no longer being studied, the crowd erupted into boos.
“It’s a frustrating thing,” Elrich said.
Slater requested a meeting last week to discuss the proposal, but Elrich said he thought the goal was to talk through potential problems with the ICC plan — not drop it from study completely.
Monday night’s meeting was the first time he was made aware of the state’s decision, Elrich added.
“One minute we’re being told there’s this high volume of traffic coming down the ICC. The next minute, they’re abandoning the plan,” he continued. “It wasn’t the news I wanted to hear.”
There was also widespread frustration over an overall funding decrease Rahn announced at the beginning of the meeting. Transit and gas tax revenues are declining, and MDOT’s overall revenues are lower than expected, he said.
That shortfall was one reason the state removed the Corridor Cities Transitway — a long-planned bus rapid transit project in Montgomery County — from the CTP, a move state and local officials widely criticized.
MDOT previously invested $38 million for project design, but announced plans to transfer the CCT to the county in 2018.
While the project was left unfunded on the CTP for several years, removing it completely would be a major blow to the bus line, making it more difficult for the county to independently apply for federal funding, Montgomery County Transportation Director Chris Conklin has said.
In his remarks to MDOT officials on Monday, Elrich requested that the state leave the CCT as a line item on the CTP even without funding — the first time any local representative has suggested that the state indefinitely retain the project with no intention of financing it.
Elrich said his administration met repeatedly with MDOT and promoted the bus line as an economic development project. But even if the state declined to invest in the bus line, its continued inclusion on the CTP would be a sign of support, making it easier for the county to apply for New Starts grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration, he added.
“I’m not asking for money,” Elrich said after the meeting. “But at least leave it there so the county can look into ways of funding it on our own.”
Rahn said he couldn’t provide a definite answer on whether the state would keep the CCT on the plan even after transferring it to Montgomery County. There could be “implications” to the decision, he added, including a rush of similar proposals from other jurisdictions.
“We have to ask whether it opens up a practice that distorts the intention of the CTP,” Rahn said after the meeting. “What does that do to the viability of the CTP as an indication of what the state plans to do?”