After hitting a temporary roadblock, the Hogan administration’s hotly disputed “traffic relief plan” for widening congested highways in Maryland’s portion of the DC metropolitan area is back on track — for now.
On a 2-to-1 vote, the Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved a $54 million “predevelopment” contract for designing the widening of Maryland’s western portion of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, a major feeder highway, all the way north to Interstate 70 in Frederick. The project also would involve replacing the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River to Virginia.
The Maryland board’s vote, which came after nearly four hours of back-and-forth testimony and debate, capped the project’s recent rebound from apparent oblivion. In mid-June, a regional transportation planning board, comprising county and city leaders from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, had voted to remove it from the region’s long-term transportation plan, effectively killing it. But the board reversed itself weeks later in July after intense lobbying by Gov. Larry Hogan and project supporters.
The plan, first unveiled by Hogan in 2017, originally encompassed adding high-occupancy, variable-toll lanes to the entire Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway plus I-270. But in May, state transportation leaders scaled it back to focus on the bridge, a major traffic bottleneck, and the highways to the west and north of the District.
After the vote by the Board of Public Works, Hogan’s office issued a press release calling it “a win for families, commuters and small businesses” that would begin to solve the “soul crushing, worst-in-the-nation traffic that people have failed to address for 50 years.”
The project has the backing of the region’s business leaders and some local officials. State transportation officials say that adding two toll lanes each way would relieve congestion, while the revenues raised by the variable tolls would pay for the construction at no cost to taxpayers.
But other local officials, community leaders and many environmentalists came out strongly against the widening project. They argued it would harm local waterways, harm disadvantaged communities, benefit affluent commuters at the expense of poorer ones, add to climate-warming air pollution and encroach on parkland and cultural and historic sites.
Opponents of the project urged the board — made up of Hogan, state Comptroller Peter Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp — to hold off on the predevelopment contract. They contended the “public-private partnership” forged to manage the project had not undergone a proper financial review, leaving the state’s fiscal health at risk if the private development group defaults or tolls fail to cover costs.
Critics also argued that a decision should wait until the completion of the final environmental impact statement due this fall. And they insisted that the real answer to the region’s traffic woes must involve getting people out of cars and onto transit.
Kopp agreed with opponents, who have cited evidence that widening highways don’t provide lasting relief from traffic congestion. Moreover, she said, she was struck by the dire warnings in the latest U.N. report on climate change, which had been released just two days earlier.
“That makes it clear what a crisis climate change is, bordering between climate crisis and catastrophe,” she said. “We have to change the way we do things. I think we can’t just look at [pouring] more concrete and more aggregate.”
But Franchot sided with project supporters, giving Hogan the needed vote to approve the contract.
The comptroller, who has declared his candidacy for governor in 2022, ticked off a list of steps state transportation officials had taken to address concerns, particularly pledges to let unionized contractors compete for work and to commit funding toward upgrading transit in the area. Despite sharing the concerns about climate change, Franchot said something needs to be done now to relieve traffic backups.
“Kicking the can down a highly congested road is not an option,” he said.
Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, called the board’s action “unconscionable,” especially in the wake of the U.N. report.
“Climate change must be central to all of our transportation and infrastructure planning,” he said in a statement after the vote. “On that mark our leaders failed us today.”
The project still faces a rocky path forward. A losing bidder for the predevelopment contract has filed a protest. And the environmental impact statement could force further changes to the project.
Tulkin also said he’s hoping the Biden administration will make good on its stated commitments to addressing climate change and environmental justice by withholding the federal approval the project still needs before it can begin construction.