Going Nowhere Fast
Our traffic is terrible. Will widening the Beltway and I-270 really help?
The proposal to widen both the Beltway and I-270 involves adding “managed” toll lanes to existing “general purpose” free lanes along both interstates, with the toll lanes designed, built, operated and financed by an outside “concessionaire” through a public-private partnership. Known as a “P3” in transportation circles, this approach to highway building has become increasingly common in the United States over the past three decades, notably in neighboring Virginia. With an estimated cost of $9 billion to $11 billion, the I-270/I-495 project would be the most expensive P3 highway project ever in North America.
Rahn says he hopes the widening project can be completed over the next decade. “Ten years represents an aggressive delivery of the program,” he acknowledges. “The danger to all this, though, is we know that in five years the traffic projections are horrible.”
Rahn contends that “dynamic pricing”—used to control the volume of traffic in toll lanes by applying supply and demand to rates—will help avoid a repeat of the early 1990s, when new toll-free lanes added to I-270 filled up years ahead of expectations. Numerous transportation experts agree that dynamic pricing has worked to keep traffic in the toll lanes moving, while also speeding up the adjacent toll-free lanes by diverting vehicles from them.
Critics deride this strategy as “Lexus Lanes” while pointing to tolls exceeding $40 during several rush hours after managed toll lanes opened in late 2017 along 10 miles of I-66 in Virginia between I-495 and the D.C. line. In a report on the I-270/I-495 project in late 2018, the state transportation department countered that “only [a little more than one-quarter of 1 percent] of all toll payers paid more than $40” during the first six months that managed lanes were in operation along I-66; tolls during that period averaged $8.49 eastbound and $4.60 westbound, according to the report.
Thaler’s residence lies along a stretch of the Beltway in Montgomery County where the right-of-way narrows to about 200 feet, down from 300 feet farther west, providing little leeway for expanding the roadway without affecting private property. Most of the 34 homes that could be taken are along I-495 in Silver Spring from Georgia Avenue east past Colesville Road/Route 29. Shortly after the potential impact on property was disclosed last spring, nearly 500 people packed a town hall meeting organized by County Councilmember Tom Hucker in Silver Spring to protest the plan.
But more than private property is at risk. Montgomery County officials are concerned about the impact of the Beltway widening on public preserves, such as Rock Creek Park and Sligo Creek Park. The amount of parkland that could be at risk is disputed. In discussions with the county, the state highway administration has put the figure at about 80 acres, which is significantly less than the up to 300 acres county officials believe could be adversely affected. Much of the acreage that could be affected resulted from an act of Congress nearly a century ago.
“When the land for those parks was acquired during the Depression era…there was a concern about urbanization and a lot of residential construction without environmental controls in place, and the feds wanted to protect the Potomac and Anacostia watersheds,” says Carol Rubin, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) official coordinating the county’s response to the widening project. “Now, the urbanization has occurred and those parks serve both as conservation areas and recreational facilities for the urban areas. That’s why they are such critical resources.”
Concerned about the impact, the M-NCPPC, owner and guardian of the park acreage in question, voted 9-1 in June against the Hogan administration’s proposal as currently designed. The action came just a day after a 2-1 vote by the state’s board of public works to approve the widening and toll lanes, with Hogan and Franchot voting in favor. But Hogan, to win the support of Franchot, a Takoma Park resident, first “reluctantly” moved to amend the project by leapfrogging the I-270 portion ahead of the more controversial proposal for widening I-495, providing up to two more years for discussion of the I-495 portion with county officials.
However, that course of action was altered in November when Maryland and Virginia announced an agreement to widen the American Legion Bridge. Under that proposal, the widening of I-495 from I-95 through Silver Spring and Bethesda to the bridge would be pursued at the same time as the I-270 portion of the project. While the widening of the bridge was welcomed by county officials, the plan to move work on I-495 up the priority list threatened to reignite the battle over the adjacent park acreage.
Hucker, who chairs the county council’s transportation and environment committee, says he has pushed throughout the controversy for the state to adopt a less confrontational stance. “I really tried to make clear to them that we could hold them up in court for well over three years until there’s no more Hogan administration,” says Hucker, referring to the legal battle that could be set off if the M-NCPPC decides against ceding the needed acreage in the parks. “So, they were really, I think, being unwise strategically, as well as from a policy point of view, not to be working with us.”
In late September 2017, Hogan held an open-air press conference alongside I-270 in Gaithersburg—with Rahn and state highway Administrator Gregory Slater behind him on a temporary podium framed by a banner proclaiming the I-270/I-495 “Traffic Relief Plan”—to announce his proposal to widen the two interstates with toll lanes.
Hogan quickly took heat for announcing the plan on Rosh Hashana. “To announce this sort of massive project on a holy day of obligation for…half of my colleagues who represent Montgomery County demonstrates a lack of understanding of the community,” declared then-state Sen. Richard Madaleno who at the time was seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
But the primary source of anger among elected county officials was the lack of discussion with them before the announcement. “There was no consultation—zero,” Berliner says.