Group urges federal government to ignore pleas for delay on Capital Beltway expansion project

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This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

A group advocating for reconstruction of the aging American Legion Bridge and the addition of toll lanes along the Capital Beltway and I-270 is pushing back on critics’ questions about a new environmental review and urging the federal government to quickly green-light the project.

“After more than 30 years of study, including at least three prior environmental impact studies, we cannot afford any more delay,” Doug Mayer, spokesperson for Traffic Relief Now, wrote in a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg last week.

Mayer wrote that the agency should ignore a letter sent by Maryland Transportation Opportunities Coalition Chair Ben Ross, who raised questions about modeling changes that decreased forecasted travel times and urged the federal agency to commission an independent review of the report, which is required for the project to move forward.

Ross said Wednesday that he had not yet received a response from the federal agency.

Mayer, former director of communications for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has pressed hard for the project since 2017, wrote that Ross’ allegation of “possible scientific fraud” was an unwarranted charge against “teams of licensed professionals with advanced degrees in traffic engineering.”

“This appears to be just another transparent attempt by extreme anti-road activists to needlessly delay a project that will bring thousands of good jobs to our region, and that has long been identified by local leaders in Montgomery County, state leaders, and regional planning agencies as a top-priority infrastructure improvement,” Mayer wrote. “It is clear that opponents of this project will say and do anything to delay or derail this critical project and have now even stooped to the level of lobbying unfounded allegations of professional misconduct. In doing so, they are putting the future of our regional transportation system at risk — along with all the economic, time savings and quality of life benefits this project will bring — with no evidence to back up their claims.”

Mayer wrote that some of the questions raised by Ross are answered within the report, though Ross said the explanations are insufficient.

Part of the issue is that the 26,500-page report is spread across dozens of files, which advocates and elected officials said made it difficult to review and respond to during a short, 30-day window.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and environmental groups urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to delay a decision on the project. The county executive’s office had not received a response from federal officials as of late Wednesday.

The report, released last month, is the government’s assessment of how the state’s plan to add variably-priced toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270, along with the reconstruction of the American Legion Bridge, would impact the environment, stormwater, traffic flows, social inequities, historical sites, surrounding communities, neighborhood parks and more.

Mayer wrote that reconstruction of the bridge is critical and serves more than 200,000 travelers daily.

“Unfortunately, the bridge is functioning well above capacity and creates one of the nation’s worst traffic bottlenecks, making life miserable for the residents and businesses that rely upon it every day,” Mayer wrote. “The bridge also needs major structural repairs or replacement within the next 10 years, adding a critical safety element, as well as considerable urgency to the discussion.”

He signed the letter on behalf of AAA-Mid Atlantic, the Baltimore-DC Building Trades Council, Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Without a delay, federal officials are expected to let the state know whether it can proceed with the project on Aug. 5.

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