Montgomery County, Maryland, residents will get an extra 30 days to provide public comment on the environmental effects of the Interstate 495 and Interstate 270 widening project.
Comments can now be made until Nov. 9 following the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of extending the original 90 day comment period to 120 days.
“It’s just a glimmer of common sense on a project that’s been very problematic since the beginning,” Montgomery County Council Member Tom Hucker, who chairs the transportation committee for the council, told WTOP.
“This draft statement that they expect the public to review in the middle of a pandemic is 15 times longer than ‘War and Peace,'” he said.
The announcement of the extended comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and Draft Section 4(f) Evaluation was made in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration.
Hucker doesn’t expect the extra 30 days to make much of a difference in how many Montgomery County residents can read it, but it will give county staff more time to parse through its 18,000 pages.
That’s important considering the costs of the project.
Hucker pointed out how Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s original promise that the project wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything was countered by a whistleblower earlier this year, who spoke about adaptations water utility company Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission would have to make.
According to Hucker, the whistleblower said that there would be additional costs to the project because WSSC will have to pay more than $1 billion to move some of its water pipes. Hucker took that as a sign that there would be additional costs for taxpayers brought on by infrastructure changes to pipes used by Washington Gas and electric utility company Pepco.
A failure to adjust the project’s scope, especially after a study by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance two weeks ago, revealed that both white-collar employers and employees expect to continue working from home even with a COVID-19 vaccine an indictment on its lack of relevance to drivers.
“It makes no sense to go forward with a project that was always sort of a 1970s, 1980s approach to transportation congestion,” Hucker said, who added that congestion is significantly down on the interstate thanks to the pandemic.
“It certainly makes no sense to go forward without any changes to that project in the wake of the COVID pandemic when we know traffic congestion is down and is going to stay down.”
The governing bodies said the extended comment period includes a virtual public hearing and two in-person hearings.
“Throughout the I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study, we’ve been committed to work in collaboration with community members and stakeholders,” Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said in the news release announcing the extension.
“Extending the comment period to 120 days ensures the public has ample opportunity to review and provide feedback on the DEIS. The extension also supports our number one priority during the COVID-19 emergency: the health and safety of the public and our team.”
The study focusing on I-495 and I-270 is looking at ways to relieve congestion while improving trip reliability in the National Capital Region by widening the often crowded corridor.
The DEIS includes traffic, environmental, engineering and financial analyses of a No-Build Alternative and six Build Alternatives, according to the release. It involves the creation of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes or express toll lanes (ETL), sometimes in combination with existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-270.
So far, there have been three virtual public hearings. The final three, which include one more virtual hearing and two in-person ones and will allow people to weigh in on the DEIS and the Joint Federal/State Application (JPA) for the Alteration of Any Floodplain, Waterway, Tidal or Nontidal Wetland in Maryland.
The final virtual public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3 from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.
To testify at the virtual hearing, visit the project’s web page and register in advance.
In-person hearings are scheduled for Sept. 1 from noon – 9 p.m. at Homewood Suites by Hilton, 9103 Basil Court, Largo, and for Sept. 10 from noon – 9 p.m. at the Hilton Executive Meeting Center, 1750 Rockville Pike, Rockville.
Testimony at in-person hearings will be by appointment only to abide by public health protocols instituted during the coronavirus pandemic. To register, call 1-833-858-5960.
Public speakers will be placed into time slots. They may also listen to other testimony and speak to the limited staff available on-site to answer questions.
The public also may call 1-855-432-1483 on in-person hearing dates to listen live or leave testimony via voicemail from noon – 9 p.m. Press * to hear options.
Comments made virtually or in-person will be given three minutes to speak.
In addition to oral testimony during the virtual and in-person public hearings, the public may provide comments through an online comment form.
Written comments also may be emailed to MLS-NEPA-P3@mdot.maryland.gov or mailed physically to the I-495 & I-270 P3 Office in the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration. The address is 707 North Calvert Street, Mail Stop P-601, Baltimore, MD 21202 and it must be addressed to Director Lisa b. Choplin.
The public may call 1-855-432-1483 anytime during the hearings to listen to the public testimony or leave testimony by voicemail. The virtual hearings will also be live-streamed.
WTOP’s Mike Murrillo contributed to this report