Critics of Beltway, I-270 expansion plan call for a slowdown

Eighteen-month-old Aviva Focarazzo, Anne Spokane’s daughter, at the Indian Spring Terrace Park in Silver Spring. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Eighteen-month-old Aviva Focarazzo, Anne Spokane’s daughter, at the Indian Spring Terrace Park in Silver Spring. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
Signs dot the Silver Spring neighborhood of Indian Spring which flanks the Capital Beltway. Neighbors say they worry about the possible impact of expanding the Beltway. (WTOP/Kate Ryan) (WTOP/Kate Ryan)
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Eighteen-month-old Aviva Focarazzo, Anne Spokane’s daughter, at the Indian Spring Terrace Park in Silver Spring. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

At a park where the noise of traffic from the Capital Beltway nearly overwhelmed the sound of songbirds, residents against a plan to widen portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 and to add toll lanes joined local lawmakers in calling for a delay in the plan.

Maryland’s Board of Public Works is set to vote Wednesday on the public-private partnership, or P3 plan, which Gov. Larry Hogan says will deliver relief to commuters suffering in what he calls “soul-crushing” gridlock.

Hogan has called detractors of his plan “pro-traffic,” and organizers of Monday’s news conference seized on that.

“None of us support traffic,” said state Del. Jared Solomon, who represents Montgomery County. “It’s time away from our friends, our families and our communities.”

He announced that 60 Maryland state lawmakers sent a letter to the Board of Public Works that called for a go-slow approach on the project.

“We are 100% for congestion relief, but MDOT’s process has shut us out,” said Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker, referring to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Abbe Spokane has lived in the Indian Spring neighborhood for five years, and she’s quick to say that, while she opposes the P-3 program as proposed so far, she’s not anti-car. She drives her son to his school each day on the Beltway. And despite the fact that her drive is short — one exit away — she’d like to see congestion addressed. “I would love a solution that I think would have a chance to make things better, but I think that what’s been proposed is not the answer.”

Spokane says she’s in favor of adding public transit to the plan to attack gridlock on the Beltway. She’d also like to see an emphasis on getting companies to encourage more teleworking.

Neighbor Beth Siniawsky, who’s lived in Indian Spring for 25 years, says she’s concerned about losing green space and part of the property at her local YMCA. The neighborhood sits up against the sound wall that lines the Capital Beltway near Colesville Road.

Siniawsky is also skeptical of the financial structure behind the project.

Governor Hogan’s proposal is designed to have private companies pay for the design and construction of toll lanes, but Siniawsky says of the $9-$11 billion dollar proposal, “We don’t know anything about who they’re giving money to.” And she wonders, “What responsibility does the state have over watching over the road?”

The Hogan administration points out that an environmental impact study will be required as part of the project, but residents like Spokane and Siniawsky say they don’t think the state should move forward with its plans until that study is complete — and according to the state’s plan, the environmental impact study is expected to be completed by 2020. With respect to the Board of Public Works’ vote on Wednesday, Siniawsky says “I would say hold off until environmental impact has been investigated.”

Local lawmakers say the sprawling project, with a price tag that’s been put at up to $11 billion, has a lot of unknowns and details that need further explanation — such as what would happen if the private companies taking on the project go bankrupt, and whether a noncompete clause in the plan would apply to any future transit or traffic-relief plans the counties would come up with.

The Hogan administration has said there have been dozens of public meetings on the road plan, but critics have complained that the meetings are less about public input and more about a presentation of what the administration wants to do to achieve its goals.

“Our three counties want to be at the table, not on the menu,” Hucker told the crowd gathered at Indian Spring Terrace Park, referring to the counties most affected by the plan: Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the county has long had plans to relieve gridlock, including adding bus rapid transit, or taking one shoulder or inside lane to add capacity to clogged roads.

The current plans for the Beltway and I-270, Elrich said, don’t seem to take into account the possible impact on surrounding secondary roads.

“No matter what the governor does to speed people around the Beltway, when you get to places like Georgia Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, you’re not going anywhere fast,” Elrich said.

Prince George’s County Council member Dannielle Glaros said the P3 plan would be the “biggest transportation that would be done in our nation,” and that “it is not the Maryland way to have the Board of Public Works vote before you close off the public comment period.”

Former Maryland state delegate and current Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey stressed the importance of getting several viewpoints to inform the best outcome. “Otherwise, you have more unintended consequences,” she said.

The Hogan administration has pushed back against criticism that the plan has been rushed: It was first pitched in 2017.

In information released to reporters on Monday, Hogan communications director Michael Ricci put out a statement designed to correct statements that have been made about the project.

Responding to a letter urging the Board of Public Works to vote on each segment of the project, Ricci said each phase will go before the board for a vote. In an email statement, he wrote, “We look forward to implementing these ideas as part of our plan to fix the region’s soul-crushing traffic.”

The Board of Public Works is made up of the governor, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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