The power of community voices showed itself this month in the delay of an important decision about Governor Larry Hogan’s intent to widen I-270 south of the intercounty Connector and the Beltway with toll lanes.
The New Mark Commons Board has contributed to the campaign against the plans with a formal protest letter to the three top state officials who are key to advancing the project.
The letter, signed by Board President John Daroff, points out that increasing numbers of residents, particularly millennials, prefer public transport for convenience and to reduce greenhouse gasses that cause global warming.
“We urge the state of Maryland to shift its focus more toward environmentally sustainable transportation solutions,” the letter said. It said that if any widening is to occur, attention should first be paid to widening I-270 to the north of Gaithersburg, where the highway drops from 12 lanes near Exit 5 to a mere two lanes. Widening it between the Beltway and the Intercounty Connector, as currently planned, would only further worsen the bottleneck, the letter said.
(The full letter is also published here in the Community News section.)
An indication that Hogan is feeling the pressure of growing public opposition surfaced dramatically over the first weekend in May, when Hogan used Twitter to condemn opponents as “activists [who have a] plot to keep the roads filled with traffic.”
“These anti-congestion-relief activists show no regard for the hundreds of thousands of you who are stuck in soul-crushing traffic every day,” he added.
Here’s a brief recap of what has happened since the workshop at Wootton High School on April 25.
The Board of Public Works (BPW), consisting of Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, had been scheduled to act on May 8. The decision was to have been made that day on whether Maryland should pursue public-private partnerships to widen I-270 and the Beltway.
The state has already spent tens of millions of dollars for consultants to map out possible routes. A go-ahead by the BPW would mean the state can proceed with soliciting private proposals—before a final route is determined and before the federal Environmental Impact Study has been done.
The problem with the May 8 meeting was this: Nancy Kopp (who along with Franchot is a Montgomery County resident) had asked Hogan’s office in November to postpone the May 8 meeting, since she had long-standing plans to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary in Japan, according to The Washington Post.
Kopp has indicated she has serious questions about a plan that would give private companies toll collection rights for the next 50 years. “It deserves more examination,” she told The Post.
But in the same May 3 Post story, the governor’s office was quoted as saying it would go ahead with the May 8 meeting anyway, since only two of the three BPW votes were needed to proceed.
By the evening of May 3, Hogan had relented and removed the issue from the May 8 agenda, after consulting with Franchot. The Comptroller’s position on the issue is not clear. In a May 2 email to this writer, Franchot’s office said he would be asking Maryland transportation officials “a series of questions, most of which include concerns and issues raised by constituents like you.” There is also considerable support among commuters for the plan.
On Sunday, May 5, more than 450 people gathered in Silver Spring to protest the toll-lanes rush by Hogan. The Town Hall gathering—the largest to date on the issue—was organized by Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker, whose areas of responsibility include transportation and who is a leading advocate on the county’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions blamed for global warming.
Push-back is also coming from Maryland officials, including Montgomery County’s Executive Marc Elrich, and elected officials from Prince Georges County and the District of Columbia. Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton charged at the April 25 workshop that local governments have not been consulted. “This has felt like a fait accompli from the State,” Newton said.
The state is promoting six alternatives that purportedly would save commuters anywhere from 45 to 73 hours of drive time per year. A seventh alternative is described as “no build.”
At the Falls Road interchange, the estimated $11-billion-plan could expand lanes to 16 from the current 12. The bridge would be rebuilt. Considerable property would be taken from backyards on Marcus Court; from the Millennium Garden at the corner of Potomac Valley; and from Julius West Middle School. Along the Beltway, more than 30 homes could be destroyed. All told, nearly 1,500 properties would be affected along the Beltway and i-270 either through partial taking or during construction, including parkland.
Traffic analysts cited by the “Don’t Widen 270” group say the reason one can’t build a way out of congestion is something called “induced demand”, which means traffic will grow to fill the newly opened space. The group notes that the expansion of 270 in the late 1980s was supposed to have accommodated increased traffic for several decades, yet gridlock had returned within five years.
The public has until June 14 to comment on the alternatives. The form as well as information about the alternatives are available on the Maryland.gov website at http://495-270-p3.com. Click on “Your Participation” and follow the drop-down menu to “Provide Feedback.”