UPDATED: State’s I-495/I-270 study expanded without proper notice, regional agency complains

UPDATED: State’s I-495/I-270 study expanded without proper notice, regional agency complains

Planning board chair wants public comment period restarted on environmental report

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Interstate 495 at Sligo Creek Park

Photo from Montgomery Planning

This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. Aug. 18, 2020, to reflect that Casey Anderson spoke during a hearing on Tuesday morning and at 3:20 p.m. with details of the County Council and the county executive working together.

A Montgomery County planning official on Tuesday confronted the state Department of Transportation for making unannounced changes to a report on a contentious highway widening project and will call for more time to review it.

Casey Anderson, the chair of the county’s planning board, asked for an extension of the 90-day period for the public to review the voluminous draft environmental impact statement (DEIS).

Anderson spoke on Tuesday during the first scheduled public hearing on the DEIS related to a proposal to widen interstates 495 and 270.

Montgomery County and federal officials have pressed the state to allow the public at least 120 days to examine the report because of its size. The DEIS and its appendices now total more than 19,000 pages.

The state issued the report on July 10. The 90-day review period will end on Oct. 8.

There is now a new round of criticism because the state added to the report and appendices after they were released on July 10, without notifying the public.

Tuesday’s virtual hearing will be the first of four scheduled by the State Highway Administration (SHA) and the Federal Highway Administration.

Anderson — as chair of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) — contended that significant changes were made to the DEIS following its July 10 public release without proper notice. M-NCPPC owns and maintains parkland and open space in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Anderson requested that the comment period be restarted, and that further hearings on the DEIS be postponed accordingly — to allow the public sufficient opportunity to review the version of the study now posted to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) website.

“… The 90-day review clock should start no earlier than today, but only with MDOT SHA’s assurance that no additional changes will be made to the DEIS,” Anderson’s written remarks prepared for his testimony say. “I also recommend that additional public hearings be scheduled for those who wish to review the DEIS in its final form and provide verbal testimony.”

MDOT spokesman Bryon Johnston on Monday evening took issue with Anderson’s assertions. “The DEIS has not changed,” Johnston said.

The DEIS is 353 pages, but 19 technical reports and appendices, totaling more than 19,000 pages, are attached.

They are the result of a process that began in March 2018, six months after Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled a proposal to widen I-495 and I-270 through a public-private partnership. The project is to be underwritten by private financing reimbursed by revenue from new toll lanes.

When the DEIS was released on July 10, Bethesda Beat saw that the DEIS and its appendices on the MDOT website totaled 17,915 pages. This past weekend, though, the DEIS and its appendices had 19,608 pages.

M-NCPPC sources said they also had found nearly 1,700 more pages in the document now on the site and agency is still analyzing the content of the additional pages.

It appears that a major part of the difference lies with Appendix C, entitled “Traffic Analysis Technical Report.” It was 163 pages when first posted on July 10. It has expanded to 1,556 pages.

Appendix B, the “Alternatives Technical Report,” was originally 157 pages. But a 250-page “Appendix A&B” was added after the initial release of the report.

That addition contains an analysis of a proposal by Montgomery County officials to divert increased traffic to the Intercounty Connector to avoid widening a relatively narrow stretch of I-495 through Bethesda and Silver Spring. MDOT ultimately rejected the proposal.

Johnston said that materials in the two appendices were uploaded a day after the full report was issued on July 10.

“In reviewing all the information that was posted, it was noted that Appendix A & B of the Alternatives Technical Report (DEIS Appendix B) and the appendices of the Traffic Analysis Technical Report (DEIS Appendix C) did not upload, and those appendices were immediately uploaded on July 11,” he wrote in an email.

But M-NCPPC officials responded that MDOT and SHA failed to notify anyone of the discrepancy.

“Whether the omission of those pages was intentional or unintentional is irrelevant,” Anderson’s remarks for Tuesday’s hearing say. “What is relevant and intentional is that failure of MDOT SHA to notify anyone about this revision to the DEIS after it was declared ready for public review and comment. MDOT SHA’s failure to be transparent about this error places the integrity of the entire process into question.”

His remarks continue: The comments I am providing today are in reliance on a document that is out of date. How many other organizations and interested people have also relied on an out of date document to provide comments? A simple notification could have been posted on the website. This failure of transparency is astounding.”

Anderson’s call to restart the comment period would push the current Oct. 8 deadline at least into November.

County Executive Marc Elrich, in a letter dated July 17, called on MDOT to extend the current 90-day period by at least 30 days, given the volume of the DEIS.

Members of Montgomery County’s congressional delegation — including U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Jamie Raskin — made a similar request in a letter to the Federal Highway Administration and SHA on July 9.

Aides to Elrich and Raskin said Monday that they had yet to receive responses to their respective letters of more than a month ago.

“No decision has been made yet, but MDOT SHA is supportive of this request,” Johnston said. He added: “We have communicated and are working with the Federal Highway Administration, the lead federal agency, in considering this request. This has been communicated to County Executive Elrich.”  

Meanwhile, Elrich and the Montgomery County Council have agreed to work together to craft a joint county position on the DEIS, according to a statement the council issued Tuesday.

The council and Elrich are asking county residents who testify at the four virtual hearings and two in-person sessions sponsored by MDOT SHA — which began Tuesday and conclude Sept. 10 — to submit copies of their testimony to county representatives, as well, no later than Sept. 14.

Residents not participating in the hearings but who submit comments to MDOT SHA also are asked to provide copies of their views to the county.

“Information submitted … will be reviewed by both the legislative and executive branches of county government to guide feedback and inform the development of a detailed position [on the DEIS] by Tuesday, Oct. 6,” according to the council’s statement.

The statement said that if MDOT SHA and the Federal Highway Administration grant the pending request by Elrich and the local congressional delegation to extend the public comment period by 30 days, “the deadline for sending testimony and correspondence will be extended commensurately.”

While an MDOT spokesman this week said that transcripts of the public hearings — virtual and in-person — on the DEIS will be made available “sometime after the last hearing,” county officials have been told by the state agency that transcripts will not be available before the current Oct. 8 deadline. This has resulted in the effort by county representatives to collect copies of testimony and comments on their own.

An email portal — managed.lanes@montgomerycountymd.gov — has been created for county residents to submit comments and testimony.

Residents without internet access can mail materials to the attention of the council’s senior transportation analyst, Glenn Orlin, Council Office Building/4th Floor, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville, MD 20850. 

In addition to the procedural objections Anderson raised to the recent handling of the DEIS, he reiterated policy concerns relating to the I-495/I-270 widening project voiced during an M-NCPPC meeting last month.

While state officials have downplayed transit alternatives to the I-495/I-270 widening on the basis that they don’t pay for themselves, Anderson pointed to findings by the DEIS that a privately financed road project could require major public subsidies.

He also contended that the study underestimates the so-called “limit of disturbance,” defined in the DEIS as “the 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.”

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