This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.
After years of study, the Maryland Department of Transportation has chosen its “preferred alternative” for Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to expand portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, the agency announced on Wednesday.
MDOT selected Alternative 9, which will add four High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes — two in each direction — to I-495 between the American Legion Bridge and the I-270 spurs, and to I-270 between the Beltway and Interstate 70 in Frederick.
The new lanes will be “managed lanes” in which cars with one or two people will pay a toll that will vary depending on traffic volumes. They will be funded, built and maintained by a private consortium which will set the toll rates within parameters established by the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Vehicles with three people will be able to ride for free.
MDOT’s plan converts the existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-270 into HOT lanes. Currently motorists with a single passenger are allowed to use I-270’s HOV lanes during rush hour, bypassing “general purpose” lanes that tend to be more crowded.
The agency’s decision is a major step in a years-long process of analysis, public comment and controversy on the plan Hogan (R) announced with fanfare in 2017. He hailed the project as a “game-changer” that would address one of the Washington, D.C.-area’s biggest traffic-chokepoints.
Three private-sector teams are vying for the right to build Phase 1 of the state’s I-495/I-270 project. The state is expected to select a winning bidder within the coming days.
Local officials in Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George’s counties have been almost universally opposed to Hogan’s plan because of its potential encroachment on surrounding neighborhoods, environmental impact and the potential for more traffic. State lawmakers have voiced strenuous objections as well, and homeowners have banded together to fight the project.
Critics have dubbed managed lanes “Lexus Lanes” that primarily benefit the well-to-do, a contention that officials at Transurban, Virginia’s contractor, reject.
Hogan and others have defended his plan, saying the state must rely on private financing because it lacks the resources to expand road capacity on its own. Backers of “express toll lanes” — such as those on I-95 north of Baltimore and throughout Northern Virginia — say they benefit all motorists because those who opt to pay the tolls free up space in the remaining, no-cost lanes.
Planners in Montgomery and Prince George’s have chafed at the state’s road-widening plan, accusing their counterparts at the State Highway Administration of not sharing information or taking their suggestions and concerns seriously.
MDOT and its federal partner, the Federal Highway Administration, are now in the process of responding to 3,000 comments the plan received during the formal public comment period.
The pushback from officials and the public has led to numerous changes. The state has essentially deferred plans to widen the Beltway from the I-270 spur toward I-95 in Prince George’s County indefinitely.
The plan to widen the Beltway in Prince George’s has been deferred as well. And the planned widening of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway appears to have fallen victim to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s unwillingness to part with the road.
In addition, the state re-ordered the phasing of the project to start with the construction of a new American Legion Bridge in partnership with Virginia, a change long sought by Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D).
Montgomery officials were not briefed on the state’s selection of Alternative 9 prior to Wednesday’s press release.