Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s ambitious plan to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 was intended primarily to benefit the long-suffering residents of Montgomery County, who endure some of the nation’s longest commutes.
But that proposal, unveiled enthusiastically by the governor more two years ago, has yet to win over some crucial leaders — the top officials in Montgomery County.
While there is widespread agreement that clogged roads are impacting quality of life and the capital region’s economy, there is a distinct lack of consensus surrounding the state’s proposed remedy.
Hogan (R) and his Transportation secretary, Pete K. Rahn, back a public-private partnership – pegged two years ago at between $9 billion and $11 billion. Under their proposal, which won the preliminary backing of the Board of Public Works in June, a private sector firm would build and maintain four new lanes and the existing lanes on I-495 and I-270 in return for the right to impose varying tolls on the new lanes for 50 years or more.
An environment analysis of the state’s plan, mandated by federal law, is underway now.
But the political stalemate remains.
Montgomery County leaders — including County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) and his top transportation official, Al Roshdieh — continue to press for a more traditional and less expensive approach.
They propose widening the Beltway between the American Legion Bridge and the I-270 spur and adding reversible lanes on I-270 between the spur and Interstate 370, using existing right of way.
But they balk at adding four lanes to the section of the Beltway that runs from the 270 spur to Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County out of concern that there isn’t enough room.
They oppose the taking of homes, businesses and parkland to create the space needed for four additional lanes through Kensington and Silver Spring.
“I don’t see where there is room for adding those lanes on the surface,” said Roshdieh. “Maybe they’re thinking about elevating or bridging over the existing 495.”
State officials have not said how they would shoehorn four lanes into the current narrow right of way. They maintain that there are firms with international portfolios eager to bring their experience and “innovation” to the project.
Many county residents and elected leaders are fearful that the plan will ultimately involve massive bridges or tunneling, projects that could have lengthy construction periods and would end up changing the character of communities near the highway.
In a brief interview, Rahn more or less conceded that staff-level conversations with Montgomery County officials have not produced much consensus.
“We’re working on it,” he said with a smile, declining to elaborate.
Roshdieh said county leaders would be open to allowing commuters to use the I-495 shoulders during rush hour and that interchange improvements could reduce travel time. Montgomery officials have also pressed for greater use of car-pooling, commuter buses and tele-work to reduce the number of cars on the road.
Elrich and Roshdieh also believe that more can be done to encourage Virginia-bound motorists – particularly those coming down I-95 from the north – to use the Inter-County Connector (MD 200).
“The ICC is a good alternative to I-495,” Roshdieh said. “Maryland taxpayers paid for that road. Right now, there is still plenty of capacity on that road.”
Local leaders also back the construction of two reversible lanes on I-270 north of I-370, a potential plus for commuters who reside in Germantown, Clarksburg and Frederick County to the north.
But the lack of consensus on how to move traffic through Montgomery County is casting doubt on whether the Hogan-Rahn plan will advance.
“I think it means that probably nothing’s going to happen,” said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the House Transportation and Environment Committee.
“The big problem with this project is the geometry of the Beltway,” he said. “It’s very hard to see how you can affordably increase capacity on the Beltway unless you double-deck it or build a tunnel underneath it. I’m just not sure how it can be done.”
Roshdieh said he has yet to see specific plans either. “They have come up with some sketches, but a lot of property is going to be impacted.”
Rahn stressed that discussion are ongoing. Earlier this year, after local leaders complained that the road-widening plan appeared to overlook the potential that bus and rail enhancements might bring, he created a Transit Work Group to brainstorm new approaches to help commuters.
“We are doing everything we can to be engaged with the locals, and we do have the inter-governmental working group, which has federal and state and local governments at the table,” he said.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, suggested county leaders are “moving the goalposts” when it comes to laying out their priorities for the transportation projects.
“Let’s remember that it was in response to the concerns of Montgomery County officials that we agreed to delay much-needed improvements to 495 — it was backed up well before 7:30 this morning, as it is every morning — and proceed with the 270 phase,” he said. “Now they seem to want something ‘more traditional,’ when the only tradition that drivers in this region know is gridlock and congestion. Moving the goalposts does nothing to move the traffic.”