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A high-ranking critic of the Hogan administration’s plan to widen two Montgomery County highways is urging the federal government to tap the brakes on the controversial project.
In a Feb. 2 letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) said the project has numerous flaws, and he urged the federal government to “reevaluate” its role in it.
“These deficiencies include a lack of consideration of transit options and investment, a dated and inequitable approach to improving infrastructure that is out of step with the Biden/Harris administration’s modern approach to infrastructure, the unknowns of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel, and phasing inconsistencies between the procurement process and the planned Environmental Impact Statement,” Brown wrote.
The lawmaker also pressed the agency to re-do a time-consuming study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a request that — if granted — would imperil Hogan’s hopes of getting the project approved before he leaves office less than two years from now.
“I hope we can meet soon to discuss this matter, and the USDOT considers taking the necessary action of restarting the NEPA process to mitigate the damage that this project would do to the State of Maryland,” said the lawmaker, who lost the 2014 gubernatorial race to Hogan in an upset.
Brown’s letter was obtained by Maryland Matters on Tuesday.
The congressman may hope he has special pull with Buttigieg — he endorsed his fellow military veteran’s bid for president in 2020, becoming the highest-profile Marylander and one of the highest-profile Black leaders to do so.
Hogan’s spokesman, Michael Ricci, accused Brown of seeking to undermine the state’s efforts to provide relief for commuters in the Washington, D.C. region.
“There he goes again, rooting for failure,” Ricci said in an email. “And this time it’s to keep Marylanders stuck in some of the worst traffic in the country.”
Last month the Federal Highway Administration requested that Texas transportation officials “hold off” on the expansion of Interstate 45 in Houston, to give the Biden administration time “to review civil rights and environmental justice concerns,” Politico reported last week.
Brown’s letter to Buttigieg, sent the following day, cited the controversy surrounding the Houston project.
“The concerns with this planned highway system expansion in our nation’s backyard are not dissimilar from the proposed expansion of I-45 in Houston that the Federal Highway Administration has recently asked the Texas Department of Transportation to reconsider,” he wrote. “The [Managed Lanes Study] runs contrary to the vision and goals of the local communities’ long-term land use, transportation, and climate action plans and lacks any meaningful environmental justice review.”
If the federal government were to grant Brown’s request for a delay, the state Department of Transportation timeline for getting contracts approved while Hogan is governor would be imperiled.
“Even a relatively short delay would probably push some of these important decision points past his time in office,” said Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson.
Anderson called it “entirely reasonable” that the new federal administration would want to give the Maryland project a fresh appraisal, to determine whether it’s consistent “with their values and priorities with respect to climate change, land use, [and] transportation policy in general.”
“It appears that Pete Buttigieg is an urbanist,” the chairman added. “He believes in biking and walking and transit — and obviously the president is into trains and seems to have a pretty good understanding of the connection between transportation, infrastructure and the development of places.”
The first phase of the I-495/I-270 project is not located in Brown’s district, though many of his constituents use the Beltway in Montgomery County to get to work.
A subsequent phase of Hogan’s plan could run through the Beltway in Prince George’s County, through communities the lawmaker does represent. But most observers — including most notably Comptroller and gubernatorial hopeful Peter V.R. Franchot (D) — believe the state will never widen I-495 east of Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda due to space constraints.