Expanded Beltway and Bridge: ‘Extremely Disappointed’

Plan would damage parks, increase greenhouse gas emissions and leave transit unfunded, according to Park and Planning

Even though the final environmental impact statement is far from finished, Maryland announced Jan. 27 that it has chosen to add four toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge and up I-270 to mitigate traffic congestion.

Park and Planning leaders responded to the state’s preferred alternative the next week, Feb. 3. Officials argued that the state’s plan would shortchange transit and inflict unnecessary damage to parkland while increasing emissions from vehicles, at a time Montgomery County Council pledges to eliminate carbon emissions by 2035.

“We are extremely disappointed in the state’s ‘preferred alternative’ for adding lanes to these highways while offering nothing to reduce the need for more cars,” said Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission Chairman Elizabeth M. Hewlett. “As stewards of the environment and important community assets, we are experienced in crafting sound land use and transportation policies for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. It’s just indefensible that the state’s proposal ignores our recommendations to use part of the toll revenue to fund transit as part of a strategy to minimize the amount of land – including parkland – that will be paved.”

Casey Anderson is Montgomery County’s Planning Board Chair and Vice-Chair of the region’s planning board.

“Any alternative that does not include substantial support for transit from toll revenue is a non-starter,” said Anderson. “For months MDOT has been saying that revenue for transit would be included in the project, but they have yet to make any commitment to actually making it happen. Allowing buses to use the new toll lanes is not going to cut it – this project needs to get serious about support for transit.”

M-NCPPC raised hundreds of concerns about environmental impacts of adding lanes to I-495 and I-270, which run through public parks and over streams owned and managed by M-NCPPC. Main issues include 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 Anderson in October.

“We are in a climate emergency,” Anderson said. “MDOT should not – and under the law, it cannot – propose a major highway expansion without seriously considering alternatives with less damaging environmental impacts.”

MDOT has said it plans a variety of environmental remediation efforts as part of the project, but the Planning Commission says it has not been asked to review any of the proposed mitigation plans.

Local impacts for Potomac and Bethesda would be significant, and still are not defined.

River Road is one of the locations the state recommends providing direct access to the toll lanes, raising the possibility of adding another lane in the middle which would ramp up to River Road.

A renovated American Legion Bridge should include room to carry a shared-use trail for bikers and hikers, like the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but it’s not clear how that would access the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the towpath as mentioned in MDOT’s most recent announcement.

There is the question of the Moses Hall Cemetery in Cabin John at Gibson Grove Church. Will Jawando, county councilmember at large, visited the site, already too close to the Beltway by Seven Locks Road. “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 in October.

HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE testified against Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed public-private partnership to build toll lanes this summer in a series of five public input meetings – nearly 83 percent of responders voiced disapproval.

“We continue to hope for a more collaborative relationship with MDOT on this effort in the future,” said Hewlett. “Together, we can determine the best solution for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties and our community members.”

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth cites the Transportation Planning Board’s once-in-a-decade Regional Travel Survey, which helps paint a detailed picture of the daily travel patterns of people in this region. The survey was released late January.

“The separate COVID-19 assessment shows that travel on our roadways is still down over 18 percet, which is largely a reflection of the big increase in telecommuting,” Schwartz said. “A lasting increase in telecommuting will likely be enough in our view that we can and should stop widening highways and arterials.”

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