Facing stiff opposition, Maryland officials have scaled back their plan to widen the infamously congested Capital Beltway around the District of Columbia, along with its two-prong connection to Interstate 270. But truncating the project has failed to dim criticism of its impacts.
The latest plan, announced May 12 by the Maryland Department of Transportation, drops a major portion of the earlier proposal to widen 30 miles of the beltway north and east of the District. But it still calls for rebuilding the American Legion Bridge across the Potomac River and adding two, high-occupancy toll lanes in either direction along the westernmost segment and on part of I-270.
The original plan, pushed by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan since 2017, had the backing of the region’s business leaders. Transportation officials said it would reduce annual drive time for the typical highway commuter by 73 hours, and it wouldn’t cost taxpayers because toll revenues would finance the project.
But many local officials, community leaders and environmentalists came out strongly against widening the highways, especially with toll lanes. They cited a litany of harmful impacts on local waterways, environmental justice concerns, displacement of homes, loss of parkland, and encroachment on cultural and historic sites. And, they argued that the project would increase emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases without easing the traffic congestion it was proposed to relieve.
Still in the crosshairs of the scaled-down plan is the historic Morningstar Moses Cemetery, a burial ground for about 70 members of a small Black community founded in the late 1800s in the Cabin John area. The Beltway just north of the American Legion Bridge already grazes the cemetery.
Directly under the American Legion Bridge, and bound to be disturbed, is the western tip of Plummers Island, a wooded 12-acre island, owned by the National Park Service, that has been a research preserve for the Washington Biologists Field Club since the early 1900s. More than a third of the island would be taken or disrupted, plans showed. An MDOT spokesman said the agency was working to minimize impacts on both sites.
In its announcement, MDOT said the new version of the plan would still address existing and long-term traffic issues and enhance trip reliability along the highways. It also said the new plan would be more pedestrian– and bicycle-friendly, enhancing the connectivity of area sidewalks and trails, notably with the addition of a multi-use trail on a new, wider American Legion Bridge.
Critics remain unswayed by MDOT’s move. Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said that while the proposed project is smaller, its original flaws remain.
“The planned toll lanes will still harm communities, increase rather than decrease traffic congestion, and will not solve the environmental justice problems with this project,” he tweeted.
MDOT and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration plan to draft a supplemental environmental impact statement on the scaled-back project by late summer.
Officials also didn’t rule out future plans to widen the rest of the state’s portion of the beltway. MDOT said that “consideration of improvements to remaining parts of the interstate system would advance separately, subject to additional environmental studies, analysis and collaboration with the public, stakeholders and agency partners.”
Opponents of the widening hope the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing climate change and protecting the environment will persuade Maryland to go back to the drawing board and incorporate alternatives to paving the way for ever more vehicles.
“Isn’t it time to consider prematurely discarded rail transit alternatives?” asked Gary Hodge, a former Southern Maryland official and now a policy consultant, in a letter to the Washington Post. “Isn’t it time to respond to the 3,000 public comments on the draft environmental impact statement, and address the concerns of citizens whose lives will be directly affected?”