Skipping the No-Build Option on Maryland Beltway Toll Lanes?

Montgomery County Council committee seems poised to endorse adding toll lanes to American Legion Bridge and Potomac/Bethesda part of Beltway

County Council appears prepared to go along with adding four toll lanes, plus more, to the American Legion Bridge, and all the way to the I-270 spur and for miles north.

“We’ve said from the beginning that MDOT should focus on the parts of this project that there is greater agreement on, such as revamping the American Legion Bridge,” said Tom Hucker, chair of the County Council Transportation and Environment Committee that met Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

“We’re all on the record here. We have stated preferences, we know there is agreement, I believe unanimous agreement within the Council and the Executive as to the need to redo the bridge. And hopefully we would redo the Bridge and have some transit component to it,” said Evan Glass (at-large), member of the three-person committee.

Despite the pandemic, more than 140 people testified during a series of virtual and live meetings this summer on the State Highway Administration’s 19,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement that accompanies Gov. Larry Hogan’s $11 billion-plus private-public partnership plan to add four toll lanes from the Legion Bridge, around the Beltway to Prince George's County, and up 270 to Frederick.

About 127 voiced opposition to the plan, recommending the “no-build” option. Approximately 15 people spoke in support of the plan.

“Generally, the comments were overwhelmingly for the no-build option,” according to Glenn Orlin, with Council staff.

But the “no build option” isn’t an option, according to Hucker, Riemer and Glass, on the Transportation and Environment Committee.

“No build, to me, that’s not a viable starting point. That would be walking back from existing County Master Plan policy,” said councilmember Hans Riemer (at-large).

“No build would be obviously a break with our long-standing position and numerous priority letters and documents on the American Legion Bridge and I-270,” said Hucker.

MARYLAND NATIONAL PARK AND PLANNING Commission opposes the project moving forward based on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, raising serious deficiencies in the plans. Main issues are impacts on parkland, wetlands, streams and other aquatic resources under the Maryland Clean Water Act, as well as inadequate definitions of limit of disturbance, compliance with social equity law, and evaluation of stormwater runoff.

“We cannot agree with the direction of the Managed Lanes Study until our land use, transportation, and environmental concerns are addressed, and that just hasn’t happened despite months of trying to get answers,” said Casey Anderson, M-NCPPC Chair and Montgomery County Planning Board Chair. Anderson attended the committee meeting.

“M-NCPPC is responsible for making well-reasoned and informed decisions with regard to any impacted parkland, including the cultural and historic resources held in trust for the residents of both Counties,” said M-NCPPC Vice-Chair and Prince George’s County Planning Board Chair Elizabeth Hewlett.

“I find it interesting for a 19,000-page document to be incomplete,” said Carol Rubin, attorney with Montgomery Park and Planning.

“We want people out of cars,” she said. “This is about moving people, not cars.”

Other recent stumbling blocks include a report that morning rush hour tolls on 270 could reach nearly $50; and that the project would make traffic worse on 270 where the lanes end.

Council expressed concerns about the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Hogan’s plans for a public-private partnership.

“I’m very concerned about the financial implications of the project after the significant failures of the Purple LIne P-3. At this point, MDOT still seems to be pushing forward with a new P-3 which is larger in complexity, scope and impact,” said committee chair Tom Hucker.

BUT COUNCIL STAFF suggested the Council and County Executive write a letter on the record that would go beyond voicing concerns with the plan.

“The second part of it would be to lay out the Council’s and the Executive’s preferences in terms of what should be built,” Orlin said. “This is the one opportunity the Council and County Executive have...to say, ‘This is what we want.’”

Orlin recommended including four lanes to the American Legion Bridge, two managed lanes in each direction.

“River Road is one of the locations the state recommends providing direct access to the managed lanes,” said Orlin, so that comes with the possibility that the state has to add another lane in the middle which would ramp up to River Road, he said.

“Revamping” the bridge could include room to carry a shared-use trail for bikers and hikers, like the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

And, yes, the bridge needs to be strong enough to be able to carry rail over it, said Orlin.

This week, the committee will work on drafting a letter with the County Executive and council staff in time for the full Council to vote whether to send it to the State Highway Administration at its meeting on Nov. 5, 2020.

The last chance to comment to the state on the plan is Nov. 9, 2020.

WILL JAWANDO, (at-large) defended the Moses Hall Cemetery in Cabin John at Gibson Grove Church.

“I stood and could literally feel the wind from the cars swishing by as I looked down at a marker, a red flag where dozens of African American bodies are buried. We know this community was decimated once with the Beltway,” which separated the church from the cemetery, said Jawando.

“And here we are considering under the current plan disturbing the resting place of these folks again, in a plan that is not ready for prime time. I think that is abhorrent.”

“It has been suggested by State Highway Administration that we may need to move some bodies. No, we will not move those bodies,” he said.

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