Montgomery Co. leaders frustrated by lack of access to Beltway plan details

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Montgomery County’s top planners are so frustrated with the State Highway Administration — and what they claim is a persistent refusal to provide key data related to a controversial highway widening proposal — that they may file a Public Information Act request to get what they’re looking for.

Local planners studying Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Interstate 270 have a host of questions about the project:

  • They want more details about the locally-controlled land the state may need.
  • They want to know how much it will cost motorists to use new “express toll lanes” SHA plans to build on the two roads.
  • They want a peak at the “origin and destination” data the state is relying on.
  • They’re seeking information about stormwater management impacts caused by the addition of new pavement.
  • They want the traffic modeling data the state used in rejecting an alternative plan that local leaders asked the state to consider.

“We’ve been asking for a lot of different information that they don’t provide to us,” said Carol Rubin, special project manager for the I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study at the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. “So we’re going to put together a comprehensive list of what we need and hope that they respond.”

A spokesman for Hogan said the state does not need approval from county planning officials to move forward with its ambitious highway expansion plans.

Rubin said if State Highway Administration officials are not willing to provide the data that MNCPPC staff are seeking, “then we’ll to make a decision about whether to put in a [Maryland Public Information Act] request and then see what happens there.”

Last week, in another sign that state and local officials still don’t see eye to eye on a top Hogan administration priority, commissioners voted 7-0 against SHA’s conclusion that a Montgomery County plan to relieve congestion on the two highways deserves more study.

In an effort to add road capacity without taking as many homes or as much parkland as the state plan, Montgomery officials have proposed converting the HOV lane on 270 to an HOT lane and reducing the number of express toll lanes on the Beltway from four to two.

“We have a responsibility to analyze the project independently, so that we can make a judgement about whether or not the project as proposed is in the public interest,” said Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson.

Anderson said he isn’t certain why local planning staff haven’t been able to get information from State Highway.

“It seems pretty clear that the governor has given MDOT marching orders about the project that he wants to build, and he’s told them to get it done his way or no way at all,” he said.

Michael Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, said state officials are “happy” to keep the lines of communication open with Montgomery and Prince George’s county planning officials.

“Maryland and Virginia’s leaders are moving forward in a bipartisan way to fix the entire Capital Beltway and do something about what is some of the worst traffic in the country,” Ricci said. “While we don’t need the board’s backing for this regional project, we’re happy to keep talking with them and hearing their concerns, as we have numerous times.”

The state’s point person on the road-widening plan downplayed any suggestion that there is tension with planners from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“We continue to want to work with Maryland-National and we hope that they want to continue to work with us to address some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion,” said Lisa B. Choplin, director of the I-495 and I-270 P-3 Project.

“I’m confident we’re going to get through… the issues or concerns that the commission continues to have,” she added. “It’s a process. Sometimes there are high points and sometimes there are low points.”

Origin and destination data — information about where commuters live and where they work — is crucial in the analysis of any transportation plan, whether it’s a road project, transit, or a combination.

For months, MDOT officials, including Secretary Pete K. Rahn, have said they can’t share that data because it belongs to a vendor and is considered proprietary.

Rubin dismisses that notion.

“We’re a public agency as well,” she said. “They could disclose it to us with an indication that it’s confidential, so that we can do the analysis but not disclose the information to the public.”

“They just don’t want to” share it,” she added. “They believe ‘we’ve done the analysis, trust us.’”

Choplin said “we’re currently checking on whether that information can actually be shared.”

Choplin defended the decision to remove the Montgomery plan from the list of “alternatives” that will receive additional analysis.

She said running an express toll lane up I-270 to the Inter-County Connector and adding two — rather than four — toll lanes to the Beltway doesn’t provide enough benefit to commuters to merit further study.

“We analyzed that with the same metrics that we analyzed all the other alternatives, and in the end … they do not fulfill the purpose and the need of this program,” she said. “They significantly are the least performing” options.

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