Broadening the beltway

Oct. 16, 2020, 3:31 p.m. | By Samantha Rodriguez | 3 years, 8 months ago

Hogan's proposed highway expansions could cut into Blair's athletic fields

Governor Larry Hogan’s controversial highway expansion plan, which includes adding four toll lanes to Interstate Highways 270 and 495, will, if enacted, cut into Blair’s athletic fields and affect the entire capital suburban community.

The project spans more than 70 miles––from south of George Washington Memorial Parkway on I-495 in Virginia, to west of Maryland’s Exit 5 on I-495, and north into Frederick County on I-270. First proposed by Hogan in September of 2017, the project has three phases representing distinct sections of the interstate highways.

Currently Phase 1, the portion from the American Legion Bridge to Frederick along I-270, which would not directly affect Blair, is pending approval for construction. This phase will accept written comments until Nov. 9. After Phase 1 is built, Phase 2 will be proposed for construction, which includes the portion of I-495 that runs alongside Blair.

Maryland’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) compared multiple proposals, including Alternative 10, the design that Hogan favors. Alternative 10 adds four Express Toll Lanes (ETLs) on I-270 and I-495 while maintaining the existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes on I-270. The Alternative 10 proposal gained traction following congestion studies conducted by the MDOT in 2018, which show it maximizes congestion relief compared to other road alternatives.

As currently proposed, Alternative 10 would reconstruct the highway noise barriers to cut slightly into Blair’s athletic fields. In addition to causing space constraints, the new noise barriers would not fully curb the noise of traffic from the expanded 12-lane highway.

Increased traffic flow would also create additional air pollution and carbon emissions, which poses additional problems for the Blair community. Ross Capon, the president emeritus of the Rail Passengers Association, explained that carbon emissions from cars impede youth development. “[There is a] biological impact of higher carbon dioxide concentrations on the functioning of the human brain,” Capon said. 

This is supported by a study published by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, which studied brain function at varying concentrations of carbon dioxide. The study found a 21 percent decrease in the average cognitive scores of participants for every 440 particles per million (ppm) increase of carbon dioxide.

The Blair community would also be burdened by increased traffic flow while entering and exiting the expanded highway, making the area increasingly dangerous for pedestrians.

The current cost estimate for the entire project is $11 billion; the plan is to subsidize between $484 million and $1 billion from taxpayers. The original proposal included no direct taxpayer subsidy.

Furthermore, this price tag does not consider the cost for sewer and pipe relocation, which the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) estimated to be $2 billion, including an estimated 277 percent increase in water bills. This is approximately up to $2,200 per year for a family of three in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. 

The total $11 billion cost would be funded by a private company through a Public-Private Partnership (P3), a system in which private funds are used in exchange for toll revenues.

However, P3s often fail to provide these purported savings to taxpayers. Ben Ross, the chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, looked back at similar partnerships and described the disadvantage of P3 programs. One example is the Purple Line, a new Metro spanning 16 miles and connecting Bethesda with New Carrollton.

“We are seeing the weaknesses of the [P3] model right now with the Purple Line,” he said. “[The government has] a history of losing money but the people who make the deals clean up and walk away.” Currently, construction of the Purple Line is stalled and will not be completed without significant taxpayer funding.

Four companies are competing to be the private partner of the expansion. The Maryland Board of Public Works (BPW) is scheduled to announce the winning company for Phase 1 in May 2021. Transurban is projected to win as they built the toll lanes on the Virginia portion of the Beltway and Hogan’s former Chief of Intergovernmental Relations now works for the company.

Proponents of the project believe that the expansion of these major highways is necessary to improve the regional standard of living and stimulate economic growth by enhancing the reliability of commute time. According to the Managed Lanes Study published by the MDOT, average congestion per day is seven hours on I-270 and 10 hours on I-495. Alternative 10 expects a decrease in daily delays of 35 percent.

Opponents feel that the plan would be environmentally unsustainable, as there are no comprehensive stormwater drainage plans and more than 1,500 acres of forest spanning 47 local parks would be cut down. In addition, 34 homes would be acquired by the state, cutting into neighborhoods and forcing families to move further away from major roadways. Such action would lead to longer commutes and more reliance on cars.

The P3 system requires toll lanes to make a profit, which Capon believes would create a tiered system on the highway unfairly excluding and discriminating against poorer citizens. “It’s more likely to look like the Virginia beltway where, during rush hour, you can pay $30 to $40 to ride the toll lanes,” he said. “That’s why some people call them ‘luxury lanes.’”

Opponents also insist that instead of spending billions on cars and highways, greater emphasis should be put on public transit.

All alternatives proposed by the MDOT specifically excluded transit options such as the Purple Line, Bus Rapid Transit routes, and Ride on Metro busses, according to Jane Lyons, the Maryland Advocacy Manager for Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Lyons believes the proposed solution is not representative of current knowledge about transportation. “The alternatives that [the state] looked at are things you would look at in the 1950s,” she said.“What we want them to look at is more of a modern 21st century approach to transportation.”

Last updated: Feb. 9, 2021, 10:41 a.m.

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