Plan to widen beltway and Interstate 270 suffers major defeat in key vote

By: - June 17, 2021 4:02 pm

Traffic flows over the American Legion Bridge along I-495, the Capital Beltway, on the day before the Thanksgiving holiday November 22, 2006 between Virginia and Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A regional transportation panel on Wednesday dealt a potentially crippling blow to planned widening of I-495 and I-270 and the replacement of the American Legion Bridge between Maryland and Virginia.

Sitting as the Transportation Planning Board, county and municipal leaders from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia voted to remove the project from a federally mandated environmental study.

The vote came during a meeting that grew contentious, with multiple Virginia Department of Transportation officials scrambling — unsuccessfully — to get the panel to reconsider its actions as soon as the roll call was complete.

“It is a significant setback for that project,” said the board’s chairman, D.C. Council Member Charles Allen (D), in an interview. “This project is done for now. This vote effectively stops the project, because this is the federally-required process that has to happen for any project.”

The motion to strike the I-495/I-270 project from the Air Quality Conforming Analysis was offered by Gary Erenrich, a top Montgomery County transportation official, on behalf of Executive Marc B. Elrich (D).

“This is a vote of no-confidence for Gov. Hogan’s road-widening plan,” said Montgomery County Council Member Evan Glass (D). “The region’s leaders spoke loud and clear, and do not believe that the project has provided sufficient environmental analysis.”

The motion was supported by almost all of the panel’s Maryland and D.C. members, along with representatives from Arlington and Alexandria.

It was opposed by the Maryland Department of Transportation, the cities of Gaithersburg and Frederick, most localities in Northern Virginia and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled his plan to add four “express toll lanes” to the frequently-congested highways in 2017. Under his proposal, the state would contract with an international consortium to finance and build the lanes and replace the 60-year-old bridge that spans the Potomac River.

Firms would recoup their investment through a complex system in which tolls fluctuate in response to traffic volume.

Project supporters described the TPB’s vote a major setback.

“I think the region has made a very bad decision regarding not moving forward with a project that would make a big difference to a lot of people,” said Maryland Deputy Transportation Secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr., a member of the board.

“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,” he added. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

John B. Townsend II, head of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, called the vote “devastating to transportation progress in the region.”

“It is singularly one of the worst decisions in the history of the TPB,” he added. “Instead of investing in transportation, the TPB is creating huge problems for our transportation tomorrow when the region once again suffers from some of the worst congestion in the entire nation.”

In the lead-up to the vote, local leaders from Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties said Hogan’s proposal failed to adequately calculate the impact new lanes would have on the region’s environment. Nor, they said, would it account for the loss of parkland.

They also complained it doesn’t boost transit opportunities sufficiently or take into account the likely post-pandemic rise in telework.

“This is not ready for prime time,” said Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton. “This does nothing to move our region forward, not in social justice, not in environmental justice, and [it’s] not the way we should be going.”

Lewis said motorists who opt not to use the proposed “managed lanes” would have the same number of no-cost lanes as they do now. But Newton corrected him, noting that MDOT has proposed converting an existing High Occupancy Vehicle lane, which is currently free 20 hours a day, into a High Occupancy Toll lane.

“We’re losing a free lane,” she said. “We’re not gaining anything.”

In a statement, MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said the TPB vote jeopardizes the agreement the governor struck with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to rebuild the bridge, a deal she said would improve transit, bike and pedestrian access, and regional mobility generally.

“It’s a vote against economic recovery, infrastructure investment and the creation of thousands of jobs,” she added. “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.”

Hogan and supporters of the project have said that the state lacks the money to fix some of the nation’s most-congested roads without a “public-private partnership,” or “P3.”

MDOT’s chosen concessionaire — Accelerate Maryland Partners — is spearheaded by two Australian firms, including Transurban, the company that owns and operates Northern Virginia’s sprawling network of toll lanes.

After the vote, VDOT’s two representatives on the transportation panel pressed Allen for a reconsideration. After consulting with the board’s attorney, he declined.

One official from the agency could be heard speaking on the phone, perhaps unaware that his microphone was unmuted.

During a subsequent roll-call vote, Robert H. Cary, VDOT’s chief deputy commissioner, interrupted the proceedings to seek consideration of an alternative.

“The motion was out of order — as are you,” snapped Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), a longtime critic of the project.

“Mr. Cary, we’re in the middle of a roll-call vote,” Allen said. “You can’t interrupt the roll-call vote in the middle of it right now.”

Cary was subsequently ruled out of order, the vote continued, and the meeting concluded.

“The unifying theme in today’s vote was the overwhelming concern of elected officials about climate change. It motivated the vote to remove the toll lane project and to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our region’s transportation sector,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates for walkable, bikeable, inclusive, and transit-oriented communities as the most sustainable and equitable way for the Washington region.

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Virginia Mercury Editor Robert Zullo contributed reporting. 

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt

Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County. Md., and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He reports for Maryland Matters, part of the States Newsroom network of sites covering state governments.