Environmentalists speak out against Md. Beltway expansion

Environmentalists got the chance to weigh in on plans to tackle traffic congestion by transforming the Capital Beltway in Maryland and Interstate 270 with managed toll lanes.

Among the major changes being considered by the state is expanding the Capital Beltway and I-270 in a public-private partnership that would design, build, finance, operate and maintain the toll lanes.

On Tuesday, the Maryland State Highway Administration held its third of six public hearings on the environmental impact of what would be one of the region’s biggest road reconstruction projects.

“We do not support the Beltway and I-270 expansion project,” said Lisa Alexander, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society of Chevy Chase. “In the face of the dual crisis of climate change and the COVID pandemic, expanding a roadway at the expense of water quality, park land and tree cover is short-sighted,” she said.

In the online public hearing, Alexander and other speakers said factors of the COVID-19 pandemic have lent support to their project opposition.

“During the pandemic, Woodend — ANS’ headquarters and 40 acres nature sanctuary located just 1,000 feet from I-495 — has seen unprecedented use. People have flocked to Woodend and all of our region’s scarce remaining green spaces to find respite. This project will negatively impact both the humans and wildlife that rely on Woodend for sanctuary,” Alexander said.

Some voiced that public transit should be the way that the state solves traffic congestion on interstates 495 and 270, two of the D.C. area’s busiest routes.

“We oppose the managed lanes plans for I-495 and I-270. We support, instead, transit solutions to the traffic issues” said Kit Gage of Silver Spring, a representative of Friends of Sligo Creek of Takoma Park.

Thirty-four Maryland-based environmental and community groups have written a letter to state and federal highway administrators asking them to extend by 90 days the comment period of the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement. They argue that the document lacks transparency because officials made changes without advising the public.

The Maryland State Highway Administration said that COVID-19 has not stopped planning for the project and that managed toll lanes on I-495 and I-270 would reduce traffic congestion for millions of drivers.

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