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Planning Commission Skeptical of Hogan's Toll Lane Project

Members of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) were very skeptical about the need for Governor Hogan’s project to add four privately owned and operated toll lanes to the Beltway and were concerned about the way the project will affect three Federal parks adjacent to the Beltway.in Montgomery County.

The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration ((MDOT SHA) presented its six alternatives retained for detailed study (ARDS) for adding four privatized toll lanes to I-495 to the NCPC on Thursday July 11, 2019. You can view the archived video here; the MDOT presentation starts at 54:10 of the video.

MDOT needs NCPC concurrence on the project since the proposed beltway widening will impact about 20 acres of Federally protected parkland in Rock Creek, Sligo Creek, and Northwest Branch Parks. Federal law allows only park-related uses of these lands; the only exception to the law was in 1962 when the Beltway was first built.

Rock Creek Park Bird watching.jpg

Rock Creek Park

NCPC staff don’t think MDOT has provided sufficient data to justify use of the parkland for construction of the beltway toll lanes, and the Commissioners asked pointed questions about

  • the data and models on which MDOT’s future traffic projections are based

  • how feedback from public workshops informed MDOT’s decision-making

  • “induced demand” that happens when highways are widened

The Commissioners want MDOT and SHA to do separate and distinct detailed studies of how

  • use of the Purple line, bus rapid transit, transit alternatives, and already planned operational improvements to existing highways, and

  • use of the Intercounty Connector to divert more I-95 through-traffic off of the beltway will affect traffic in the future vs just including these options in the “No Build” alternative.

The Commissioners expressed “no confidence” that the NCPC would be able to approve use of the Federal parklands without more data on these specific alternatives.

All of the commissioners who spoke at the briefing were skeptical of SHA's basic argument that wider roads will relieve congestion and that mass transit isn't an option.

"I find it troubling to again see we are trying to pave our way to a solution," said commissioner Beth White, president and CEO of the Houston Parks Board. "We are not going to build our way out of this problem." White, a presidential appointee, shared her frustration with how fast roads in her city fill up after being widened, including the now jam-packed Katy Highway, which runs through an industrial area in Houston.

Katy Freeway Houston.jpg

Houston’s Katy Freeway

Photo: Dhanix at the English language Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

The briefing material prepared by NCPC staff for the July 11th meeting shows that NCPC has had concerns about MDOT’s plans since last year:

  • In May 2018, NCPC urged MDOT to broaden the Purpose and Need Statement to include multimodal connectivity as a primary study component and include measures to study impacts of the road expansion.

  • In March 2019, NCPC recommended that MDOT broaden the alternatives retained for further study by adding at least one transit-focused alternative.