Maryland will stop studying how to widen most of the Capital Beltway with toll lanes and will focus on replacing the American Legion Bridge and expanding the lower part of Interstate 270, state transportation officials announced Wednesday.
The move allows the Maryland Department of Transportation to shed the most controversial segment of its toll lane plan, which extended along the Beltway east of the I-270 spur in Montgomery County to Route 5 in Prince George’s County. The state now can continue to push parts of the plan with the most local political support before Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has championed the project, leaves office in early 2023.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater said the state wanted to make sure it could move ahead on its top priority of replacing and expanding the aging American Legion Bridge.
“That’s the big chokepoint we want to focus on,” Slater said in an interview. “This is about collaborating and trying to come together on critical infrastructure.”
The bridge and lower section of I-270 also are the first segments that companies will bid on to build the toll lanes in exchange for collecting toll revenue via a public-private partnership, or P3.
“This will show we believe in [toll] lanes as a solution and the P3 model, and we can show that in an area that has more consensus,” Slater said.
Hogan proposed the highway widenings in 2017 as a way to relieve traffic congestion and form a regional network of express lanes with Northern Virginia, which has more than 50 miles of toll lanes. As in Northern Virginia, Maryland’s toll lanes would be free for carpools and buses, and the regular lanes would remain free. Hogan has said the new lanes would come at “no net cost” to taxpayers.
Hogan called fixing the bottleneck at the bridge the “most critical” part of the project.
“Our intention moving forward is it all has to get fixed or it’s not going to do much to solve the traffic,” Hogan said during a news conference. “We just want to move forward with the bridge and then move on to the next step.”
Critics, including many local officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, have said widening highways would encourage the kind of auto-dependent suburban sprawl they are trying to curb and would miss an opportunity to expand more environmentally friendly mass transit.
The part of the Beltway east of the I-270 spur was controversial, in part, because studies have shown that widening that segment would affect more public parkland, homes and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, said he believes the Hogan administration realized the broader toll lanes proposal “was too much, too big and too fast.”
“I think for most intents and purposes, this means the rest of the project [east of I-270] is essentially dead,” Anderson said.
The changes to the plan will spare sites like Greenbelt National Park, a natural oasis nestled between I-495 and Greenbelt Road — a busy, shopping-center laden thoroughfare near the University of Maryland’s campus.
The original plan would have brought highway lanes even closer to the park. It might have forced park officials to reroute one of its popular trails and install a sound wall.
”You’d be laughed out of town if you wanted to build a sound wall at Yellowstone or Shenandoah. It’s the same,” said Kyle Hart, Mid-Atlantic Field Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, one of the groups advocating against the lane expansion.
While the plan’s shrinkage is a victory, the association still opposes it, Hart said — in part because it could still impact other units of the National Park Service. That includes the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, an area replete with hiking trails that runs along the Potomac River from Cumberland to Washington, DC.
In their original environmental study, officials said they’d have to close the canal towpath to visitors and fell trees to make way for construction equipment to repair the American Legion Bridge, which was expected to last four to five years.
“Much of the forest that’s right there is all old-growth forest — you know, trees that are 75, 100 years old,” Hart said. “it’s going to take another 100 years to get us back to where we were.”
Construction west of the I-270 spur is also poised to impact historic sites there, possibly including interments at two historic cemeteries in Montgomery County: the Moses Hall Cemetery, a burial ground for African Americans in the Gibson Grove community near Cabin John, and the Poor Farm Cemetery.
But MDOT still plans to evaluate how to limit the impacts.
MDOT said it will limit the rest of its federally required environmental impact study to exploring how to widen the western part of the Beltway between the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge and the I-270 spur. The study also will examine adding one toll lane to I-270 in each direction between the Beltway and I-370 and converting the existing carpool lanes to toll lanes. Both highways would end up with four toll lanes — two in each direction.
The state will take “no action” on the Beltway east of the I-270 spur — at least for now — the agency said.
Plans to widen I-495 could advance separately in the future, notes the state website for the project.
Montgomery Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said the decision demonstrates the effectiveness of community opposition to the Beltway widening plan.
“I think this shows [the Hogan administration] was quite nervous about getting [federal] approval,” Hucker said. “They wanted to address widespread grass-roots concerns about the project as the clock runs out on the Hogan administration.”
Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), who also opposed the toll lanes plan, said the northern and eastern part of the Beltway needs traffic relief but in the form of more equitable and less-polluting mass transit.
“The governor started with four lanes of pavement from Bethesda to Branch Avenue,” Brown said. “It was crazy.”
Edgar Gonzalez, head of the pro-toll lanes Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, said he hopes state and local officials will now work together to improve traffic chokepoints at the American Legion Bridge and on I-270.
“Given the political environment of Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, it would be unrealistic to do it now,” Gonzalez said of widening most of the Beltway. “Whether we do it in 10 or 20 years is another story. But now, the state would just be wasting its time.”
MDOT plans to complete an updated draft environmental impact study late this summer.
Prince George’s Council member Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3) said her residents have been worried about what a wider Beltway would do to their neighborhoods and how much additional traffic the toll lanes’ entrance and exit ramps would bring to local roads. Local officials also questioned why the state wasn’t studying toll lanes for the heavily congested part of the Beltway between Route 5 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
“I think the most important thing the state can do is come up with a comprehensive transportation strategy for the state involving public transportation and road improvements,” Glaros said. “They need to engage with local governments and local residents before moving forward.”
Washington Post reporter Ovetta Wiggins and Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this report.