DC Beltway traffic

For years, the Washington, DC, area has had some of the worst highway gridlock in the country. But a proposal to widen much of the capital beltway has been criticized for its impact on both human communities and the environment. 

Everyone who lives or works in the Washington, DC area knows that driving on the Capital Beltway can be a bumper-to-bumper nightmare, and not just at the start and end of a workday. The region has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, surveys have shown.

To address it, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is pushing a “traffic relief plan” that would widen 48 miles of the beltway — Interstate 495, which circles the District of Columbia — and one of its major feeder highways, Interstate 270. The project, officially estimated to cost $8 billion to $10 billion, would add two high-occupancy toll lanes in each direction.

Hogan’s plan has the backing of many business leaders. A 2019 poll found that most area residents also favor it, though more in the Virginia suburbs than in Maryland’s.

But many local Maryland officials, community leaders and environmentalists are vehemently opposed. They warn that widening the highways will further pollute nearby waters, increase emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases, take dozens of homes, and encroach on parkland and cultural and historic sites. Moreover, they contend, it’s the wrong remedy for unclogging traffic.

“Our analysis shows that Governor Hogan’s highway boondoggle will not solve congestion,” Maryland Sierra Club Director Josh Tulkin said last November, shortly after the state released its draft environmental impact study. Instead, he said, “it will be a disaster for our climate and health and cause further harm to communities already impacted by environmental injustices.” 

DC Beltway map

The debate has been brewing since 2017, when Hogan announced his plan to widen the highways using what he’s billed as the largest public-private partnership in the nation. It’s coming to a head now, as state transportation officials earlier this year announced the selection of a development team for the first phase of the project.

The project includes replacement of the nearly 60-year-old American Legion Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River west of the District, making the 10-lane bridge even wider. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has pledged to address congestion on I-495 just south of the river.

State officials say daily traffic volume on I-495 and I-270 tops 250,000 vehicles in places, causing congestion that lasts seven to 10 hours per day. It’s only going to get worse, they say, as the region adds a projected 1.3 million residents and 1 million jobs by 2045.

Once the widening is completed, Maryland transportation officials predict the improvements will save the typical commuter 73 hours a year. And they say that the massive project won’t cost Maryland taxpayers; it will be paid for by motorists using the new toll lanes.

Projections, impacts questioned

Critics question virtually everything about the project, from the traffic and financial projections to the likely environmental damage. And they contend that the widened highway would benefit mostly affluent citizens, who can afford the tolls, while leaving lower-income commuters stuck on the slower, free lanes.

The draft environmental impact issued last July runs 16,000 pages, including appendices. But critics say it ignored or skimmed over key issues — not least of which are claims that the project won’t increase climate-altering air pollution.

Vehicles accounts for 36% of Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to state data, and the study acknowledges that traffic volume will likely increase if the project goes forward. Yet it contends that tighter fuel economy standards for new vehicles will more than offset the emission increase that might be expected from more traffic.

Even so, the study totes up other significant impacts. It identified 34 homes and four businesses that face demolition or relocation to make way for the widening. More than 1,100 other homes could lose parts of their yards.

“Some of us homeowners will be so close as to be able to offer beltway drivers a hamburger from our family barbecue,” wrote Mary Cook, president of the North College Park Community Association, to the state.

The widening will also take slices out of several parks that line the highways. One of those is Rock Creek Park, which would lose about 3 acres along a 3-mile stretch of Rock Creek that flows next to the beltway.

The state study estimates that more than 150,000 linear feet of waterways would be impacted. More than 16 acres of wetlands and 120 acres of floodplains would be lost, along with about 1,500 acres of forest.

The widening also would add more than 550 acres of new pavement, potentially increasing stormwater pollution.

Plummers Island, Potomac River

Rob Soreng of the Washington Biologists Field Club visits Plummers Island in the Potomac River. The island, part of which would be impacted by replacing the American Legion Bridge as part of the Capital Beltway widening project, has been the focus of a century’s worth of ecological studies. 

One of the public lands likely to be affected is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal paralleling the Potomac River, where the study said 15 acres could be disrupted. Included is Plummers Island, a rugged wilderness of forest, rocky ridges and wetlands reachable only by boat — or by wading when the river is low. The western tip of Plummers lies under the American Legion Bridge.

Plummers Island is owned by the National Park Service. But for nearly 120 years, the island has been a research preserve for the Washington Biologists Field Club, whose members include more than 100 biologists, botanists, entomologists, ornithologists and other scientists. It’s the most studied island in North America, club members say. They’ve documented shifts in the island’s flora and fauna over the decades, listing more than 900 plants and more than 3,000 insect species.

“This end of the island would be seriously impacted,” said Rob Soreng, the club’s vice president, as he and two other members led an informal tour across the at-risk westernmost portion of the island. Preliminary state surveys indicated that the island’s western tip would be destroyed and up to five of its 12 total acres could be disturbed, he said, much of it as a staging area for construction crews.

Cemetery at risk

The widening project also would impinge on a pair of cemeteries, including one with special significance — the Morningstar Moses cemetery. It is a long-neglected burial ground for African Americans in Cabin John that dates back to the late 1800s.

The cemetery was established as part of a mutual aid, benevolent society formed by an enclave of Black families that settled there as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow segregation. Called the Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 of the Order of Moses, the society’s mission was to care for orphan children and sick or destitute adults, as well as the burial of its dead. Members met in a two-story lodge hall built next to the cemetery, which at one time served as a schoolhouse for Black children.

Morningstar Moses cemetery

Diane Baxter bends down to snap a close-up photo of flowers blooming in the Morningstar Moses Hall cemetery, threatened by an expansion of the Capital Beltway. Baxter’s great-grandparents are among more than 70 African American residents of Cabin John buried there since the late 1800s. “Whatever I need to do to fight it, I will,” Baxter said of the widening plan.

The hall was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s. Only the outline of its foundation and some building debris remain. The beltway already grazes the cemetery, the traffic noise loud enough at times to make conversation difficult. But a friends group, which includes descendants of the estimated 70 people buried there, has formed to save the cemetery from further encroachment by the widening project.

“My great grandfather was buried here in 1894, at 50 years old, and my great grandmother died in 1930,” said Diane Baxter, a District resident who is one of the founders of the Friends of Moses Hall. “If your mother and father were buried here, you wouldn’t want them to be moved,” Baxter added. “Whatever I need to do to fight it, I will.”

Since last year, state highway planners have been working to minimize potential disturbances, said project spokesman Terry Owens. They’ve managed to significantly reduce projected impacts at both Plummers Island and the Moses Hall cemetery, he said. Skeptics, though, question how binding assurances like those are.

Those impacts aside, many argue that widening highways offers a short-term remedy, at best, for traffic congestion.

“There is research that goes back to the ’70s that shows that … people change their driving habits once a highway is expanded, and you end up with the same amount of congestion even if you add a lane or two,” said Barbara Coufal, co-chair of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion.

DC Beltway Rock Creek

Jeanne Braha, executive director of Rock Creek Conservancy, and Kyle Hart of the National Parks Conservation Association visit a stretch of the Capital Beltway that runs close to Rock Creek. “It’s not in great shape,” Braha said of the creek, “but it’s not going to get better building a highway up to it.”

Owens acknowledged that more vehicles will come once the highways are widened but countered that the toll lanes won’t attract much new traffic; most will be commuters who now clog local roads when the highways are backed up. The variable tolls will instead encourage carpooling and driving in off-peak hours, he said.

Alternatives to widening

Those aspects don’t fix the underlying problem, contended Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Sprawling suburban and exurban development have contributed to the region’s stifling traffic congestion, he said, and states should be focused on expanding reliable transit, making places more pedestrian friendly and encouraging transit-oriented development with affordable housing.

They also say planners are ignoring the lessons of the pandemic, which saw DC area congestion ease by 77%, according to the traffic analytics firm Inrix. Telecommuting soared, and some suggest it may continue.

Traffic has picked back up, but is still running 10–20% below what it was before the pandemic, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Transportation officials have assured critics of the project that carpoolers and buses will have free use of the toll lanes. They have also pledged to boost transit in the region and provide pedestrian and bike access on the rebuilt American Legion bridge.

Skeptical lawmakers from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are pushing legislation that would provide some legislative oversight of public-private partnerships and hold the Hogan administration to its promises. Those bills have passed the House and were pending in the Senate as the Bay Journal went to press.

In February, meanwhile, the Department of Transportation announced that a partnership had been set up to oversee “predevelopment” of the first phase, which includes replacement of the American Legion bridge and widening of I-495 from there up to and including portions of I-270.

The contract was scheduled to be voted on in May. But a losing bidder for the contract has filed a protest, which may delay the vote.

Project opponents are hoping, meanwhile, that the Biden administration may hear their complaints and intercede. They note that the Federal Highway Administration in March asked Texas transportation officials to delay a contract to widen a highway in Houston to study environmental justice concerns there.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

(1) comment

dsmarcin

As far as I'm concerned, there's only one solution to this and only bike radicals and economists like me dare mention it. Here it is: toll all the lanes. Maryland should apply for a spot in the Value Pricing Pilot Program at DOT to get permission to do this, since it is not otherwise legal to toll lanes without expansion, reconstruction, or rehabilitation.

You cannot decongest a free highway with more lanes, and you cannot decongest a free highway by creating public transit alternatives. Only tolls can decongest a free highway.

Welcome to the discussion.

We aim to provide a forum for fair and open dialogue.
Please use language that is accurate and respectful.
Comments may not include:

* Insults, verbal attacks or degrading statements
* Explicit or vulgar language
* Information that violates a person's right to privacy
* Advertising or solicitations
* Misrepresentation of your identity or affiliation
* Incorrect, fraudulent or misleading content
* Spam or comments that do not pertain to the posted article
We reserve the right to edit or decline comments that do follow these guidelines.