Maryland environmental coalition petitions federal judge to halt Beltway expansion project

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A group of environmentalists and historic preservation groups challenging the expansion of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway in U.S. District Court have asked a judge to decide the case in their favor.

The coalition, which includes the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of Moses Hall, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed a motion for summary judgment in the case on Friday.

The groups argue that the Federal Highway Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation failed to adequately assess and disclose the project’s impacts. The Northern Virginia Citizens Association, which filed a separate lawsuit challenging the project, joined portions of the brief.

The challenge was originally filed in U.S. District Court in October.

The lawsuit claims that expanding the highways would cause harm to public health, natural resources, and historic places that were already impacted by the original Beltway construction in the 1960s.

The agencies “had to first take a close look at the harms the project would cause, and the alternatives to it. And they owed the public a candid assessment of the damage from this multi-billion-dollar project before approving it,” the filing says. “They failed on both counts.”

The groups allege that the governments failed to adequately analyze potential public health harms from air pollution, effects on traffic, environmental impact to a Potomac River island, and damage to the Morningstar Moses Cemetery and Hall, a historic African-American burial ground adjacent to the Beltway.

The state and federal government have generally denied the claims.

The groups said in a press release that while the Hogan administration “cut corners” in the approval process, the new administration of Gov. Wes Moore (D) could revisit the project and conduct a “robust and just” environmental review.

During the course of the litigation, the timeline for filings in federal court has been lengthened, in part because a sense of urgency is gone.

In early March, the lead partner in a consortium known as Accelerate Maryland Partners, the private developer selected by the Maryland Department of Transportation to design and finance the highway expansion, announced it had canceled its contract.

The groups challenging the project want U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow to vacate the “record of decision” in the environmental review process that cleared the way for the project to move forward.

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