Seth Glinski works in construction and development. An uncertain future because of the 2020 pandemic, he said, is actually cause for “feeling lucky” when it comes to the possible widening of the Capital Beltway and I-270 and the American Legion Bridge.
“I see a lot of hesitation from people moving forward with a lot of different types of construction projects these days because we’re not sure what the world is going to look like six months or a year from now,” said Glinski, of Bethesda. “Every smart private developer that I work with is putting projects on hold that may or may not be impacted by the future of how people work and live.”
Think if construction of privatized toll lanes had already begun, he said. Would we be able to put a stop to construction one year in, he asked, if it was determined widening lanes is no longer the way to go?
“We are very very lucky and would be very smart to delay this decision for at least another year,” said Glinski.
The COVID-19 pandemic is “a game changer,” said Rockville’s Elliott Levine.
“There’s no certainty office life and associated traffic will ever return,” Levine said. “If it is correct that a reduction of 12 percent of traffic results in acceptable congestion, there would be no need for this highway.”
“Therefore, don’t build,” said Levine.
The Maryland Department of Transportation and the State Highway Administration MDOT and SHA will hold six public hearings. This article focuses on the first two days of hearings, Aug. 18 and Aug. 20, done virtually, because of the pandemic.
“Most importantly,” said Ole Varmer, of Silver Spring, “The Draft Environmental Impact Statement that was compiled is before the pandemic, so it can’t discuss the increase in telework, the reduction in traffic, or other strategies and alternatives that should be considered before exacerbating the harm already done.”
“Please press pause and take a hard look,” said Varmer, before closing with precise wording. “I oppose this project and support the no build option.”
PEOPLE GIVING FEEDBACK were especially careful with the wording of their bottom-line conclusions.
Janet Gallant, the first speaker, gave her reason for cynicism that dissenting voices won’t be heard.
“We reviewed DEIS source documents to see how MDOT handled the comments, and it’s troubling. MDOT undercounted the public comments opposing the P3 project,” she said.
“This matters, agencies can’t make informed decisions without accurate data,” said Gallant.
She gave an example of the Sierra Club, which attached a petition with 627 signatures, that was only counted as one person in opposition to the project.
She also said MDOT gave labels to every public comment, such as supporting the project, opposing the project, or something neutral ... but MDOT labeled a “comment as opposing the project only if the submitter had used exactly the right words.”
“To see how this played out, listen to three excerpts from public comments in MDOT’s files,” said Gallant, “One, ‘Our opposition will never cease to proposals that benefit only the privileged.’ Two, ‘We should not be spending resources and time on 20th century solutions proven to increase car trips.’ Three, ‘When is a large road too big, when local citizens who would be affected by the road are up in arms against its expansion.’”
“Not one of these comments was counted as opposing the project,” said Gallant.
Barbara Coufal, of Bethesda, followed.
“I oppose the project to add private toll lanes to I-495 and I-270. I support a no build option,” said Coufal.
Coufal said disturbances due to construction of the added toll lanes will be more than the draft environmental impact statement suggests.
“I agree with the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission that the limits of disturbance in the draft environmental statement do not adequately address the likely impacts of the project,” she said. “Because the final design and engineering won't be prepared until a later stage by the private contractor, it appears that the limit of disturbances in the draft statement are optimistic.”
THE NEXT public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3 and an in person hearing is scheduled at the Montgomery County Hilton Executive Center on Sept. 10.
Officials from Citizens Against Beltway Expansion said 54 speakers spoke in opposition to the project while nine spoke in favor during the first three hearings. On the first day, only a man calling in from Atlanta, Ga., unidentified by name, spoke in support.
Jerry Garson, of Potomac, and Jennifer Russel, of Rockville, spoke in support at the second hearing on Aug. 20.
“Although the draft environmental impact statement is an overwhelming document, the bottom line remains the same. We will still be stangulating in traffic,” said Russel, who suggested that traffic speeds are going to be 15 miles per hour or less by 2040 as population increases in the area.
“More delay must not be the answer for something that has been studied for 30 years,” she said. “The project is a no-brainer that we must embrace.”
Garson, speaking on behalf of the Seven Locks Citizens Association, said he has been analyzing daily traffic counts for the last 20 years.
He said that traffic patterns are returning to pre-covid numbers, and because more people are going to be hesitant to travel in subway cars or busses, even more people are going to use cars.
“We need much more road capacity,” said Garson.
THE BIG SHOCKER came immediately on day one when Casey Anderson, chair of the Maryland Park and Planning Commission, said he learned from press and advocacy groups that more than 1,600 pages have been added to the DEIS document from that original July 10 website posting of the draft environmental impact statement.
“The addition of new material without notice to anyone raises serious doubt about whether the comment period must be extended in order to comply with NEPA, and just as importantly about why MDOT failed to disclose the modifications to the DEIS materials,” said Anderson.
“MDOT SHA must extend the deadline for public comment, and the 90-day review clock should start no earlier than today, but only with MDOT SHA’s assurance that no additional changes will be made to the DEIS,” he said.
Last week, the public comment period for the 18,000 page Draft Environmental Impact Statement was extended until Nov. 9, 2020.
“Water pollution issues in the Anacostia River are directly attributed to designing our communities around automobiles rather than people.”
ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS were raised by a majority of speakers.
Rory Davis, of Rockville, was the youngest speaker to testify. A former student at Julius West Middle School last year, Davis recommended air quality tests inside and outside, especially for schools and residents in close proximity to I-270, I-495, and other highways. Julius West’s building is already 253 meters from the I-270 and its track is 35 meters from the highway, he said.
“That is already too close,” said Davis.
“Increasing cars on the highway can only make air quality worse,” he said, citing asthma, lung problems, and other cardiovascular problems children might acquire simply because of where they live and go to school. “Don’t ruin the lives of children for the sake of profit,” especially for an Australian company that stands to benefit from this project, he said.
Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society Foster said the watershed society has worked for 30 years to restore the health of the Anacostia River.
“We are very very very interested in preventing water pollution, not having to clean it up,” Foster said.
“We expect you to meet a high standard for environmental and community protection,” said Foster. “Water pollution issues in the Anacostia River are directly attributed to designing our communities around automobiles rather than people. This process is used to justify simply the need to do more and the very downward spiral of unsustainable practices.”
“Widening the Capital Beltway and I-270 with four toll lanes will impede on 237 parks, 18 community recreation centers and four community pools.”
Gail Landy, of Gaithersburg, said “only one of the reasons” she opposes the project is the impact on local, state and national parks. “Widening the Capital Beltway and I-270 with four toll lanes will impede on 237 parks, 18 community recreation centers and four community pools….The loss of and infringement on parks is unacceptable to me.”
Alice Schindler, of Silver Spring: “The draft EIS on the 495/270 plan fails to study the full range of impact the highway plan could have on environment, health and communities. I do not support the project and support the no build option.”
Anderson spoke for the Park and Planning Commission: “The DEIS provides an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the impact of the project on parkland and private property because it does not account for significant changes to the limits of disturbance likely to be required for construction of the managed lanes and therefore cannot be a legally adequate basis for evaluating the environmental impact of the project.”
He said Park and Planning will provide more thorough responses in writing by the deadline to give feedback, now Nov. 9, 2020.
MANY BROUGHT UP the need for additional alternatives for study.
“In a progressive state such as Maryland, we should not be solely reliant on road expansion and increasing our dependence on cars and travel. MDOT/SHA should be an innovator and bring light rail to Maryland,” said Schindler.
“The impact statement fails to analyze transportation alternatives, such as transportation demand measures, forthcoming technologies, synchronized automobiles and monorail concepts that are far less impactful,” said Levine.
“The overall strategy lacks creativity and vision and is fiscally irresponsible,” said Richard Stolz, of Rockville. The current project is “a disservice to ourselves and future generations. A lot more thought has to go into how we transport people,” he said.
Traffic can be annoying, but not as much as exacerbating climate change, said Daniel Ring, of Rockville.
SUPPORTERS WILL REMIND everyone that traffic congestion affects many lives around the Beltway. More than 235,000 vehicles crossed the American Legion Bridge daily, at least until the beginning of the pandemic.
Gov. Larry Hogan made the claim: “The project is expected to cut commuting time in half for many travelers, reduce congestion in the regular lanes by 25 percent, provide 40 percent more lane capacity over the old bridge, and include bicycle and pedestrian paths across the Potomac River.”
Virginia officials have pointed to Maryland as the problem before the pandemic, where Virginia’s toll lanes end and merge before the American Legion Bridge.
“Our teams have identified a way to fix one fo the worst traffic hot spots in the country,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has said. “This demonstrates what can get done when leaders come together to find shared solutions to tough regional problems. This is about helping people see their families more, grow their business, and further unlock the region’s vast economic potential.”
And Gov. Hogan pitches the project as being paid for by a private company, not the tax-payers.
But according to public testimony, most were not convinced.
“Since the start, Gov. Hogan and MDOT have stated there would be no cost. Then we learned that it will cost WSSC customers $2 billion to move water and sewer lines,” said Coufal, of Bethesda.
Arthur Katz, of Rockville, called a private company coming to the rescue to cover the cost a fantasy. “The highway expansion is based on a politically driven false fantasy embodied in, ‘I built this and you didn’t have to pay for it,’” he said.
“Even more bizarre is the idea that it’s okay to make $10-billion, 50-year commitments to highway building without understanding telework and other covid effects and other transportation options will permanently upend traffic patterns and flatten peak hour commutes,” he said.
Susan Grodsky, of Rockville, said she was reminded of something her father told her when she was 10 years old. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she said.
A few speakers brought up fiscal problems with private-public partnerships with construction of the Purple Line. And a couple also brought up that taxpayers will be faced with the burden when WSSC has to charge for moving water and sewer lines to make way for this massive construction project.
“It’s wishful and naive to think there will be no cost to taxpayers,” said Joseph Espito, of Carderock Springs. “The Purple Line is exhibit A that in public private partnerships, taxpayers end up footing the bill.”
TOLL LANES are going to help 10 percent of drivers in the toll lanes while 90 percent of drivers are stuck in the “free” lanes, said Katz.
Hence the moniker, Lexus Lanes, said Elliott Levine, of Rockville. “The speed gains in the toll lanes are compensated by slower drive times in the free lanes, hence the moniker, Lexus Lanes on this project.”
Peter Tantisunthorn, of Silver Spring, doesn’t oppose mitigating traffic, he just thinks more multi-modal transportation should have been considered.
“When we are looking at an environmental impact study, it’s kind of funny that’s the only consideration when we’re building a project that is going to make a larger environmental impact on this region. We are doing a disservice to ourselves and future generations because of this plan. A lot more thought has to go into how we transport people about the 270 corridor and 495 in modes outside from cars.”
“This whole thing sounds foolish and must be abandoned at once,” said Frank Pierce.
Brian Ditzler, of the Sierra Club, called it a “financial and environmental disaster.”
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE was not followed, said Coufal and Eyal Li, of Takoma Park.
“Appendix P shows that MDOT did not successfully engage environmental justice populations in Prince George’s County at any stage of the process,” said Coufal. Communities of color and poor people are often more negatively affected by environmental impacts of such projects.
Prince George’s County submitted less than one-fifth of the testimony of Montgomery County so far.
“As detailed in the DEIS, the proposed added lanes would increase vehicle miles travelled, leading to higher global warming emissions and traffic-related air pollution.”
—Eyal Li, Union of Concerned Scientists
Eyal Li, of Takoma Park, is an environmental engineer and an advocate for clean transportation policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “On behalf of our 24,000 supporters in Maryland, and our network of more than 26,000 scientists, engineers and public health professionals nationwide, [Union of Concerned Scientists] strongly opposes the proposed addition of lanes to I-495 and I-270 and supports a no-build option,” said Li. “As detailed in the DEIS, the proposed added lanes would increase vehicle miles travelled, leading to higher global warming emissions and traffic-related air pollution.”
UCS is “particularly concerned” about the project’s disproportionate health impacts on marginalized communities near the highways, he said. The race and ethnicity characteristics of the analysis area reveal that Latino, Asian-American and African Americans are overrepresented by 50 percent, 49 percent and 9 percent, respectively, while white residents are underrepresented by 37 percent compared to their population statewide. In 2019, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a study showing African American and Latino Marylanders are exposed to levels of traffic related air pollution that are 12 and 11 percent higher than the average while white Marylanders breathe air that is 8 percent cleaner than the average Maryland resident.
“Chronic exposure to particulate matter pollution from vehicles causes increased death rates attributed to cardiovascular disease and respiratory ailments including COVID-19, among other conditions. Given the systematic oppression of marginalized groups throughout history, we call on the MDOT to shoulder a greater burden of proof that its actions are not harmful to the health and wellbeing of minority populations, low-income populations, and/or indigenous peoples,” said Li.
Sue Nerlinger said: “Toll lanes are not an equitable solution to the congestion problem.”
Why CABE Opposes $11 Billion For-Profit Tollways on I-495/I-270
Maryland is pushing an $11 billion public-private partnership (P3) to expand I-495 and I-270 for as many as four for-profit tollways. They claim it will end rush hour congestion without costing taxpayers a dime.
Luxury Lanes depend on bad traffic congestion to make a profit.
Luxury Lanes depend on billions in taxpayer aid, despite the private investment.
$28 - 48 rush hour tolls were charged (pre-COVID) on Northern Virginia's I-495 and I-66 Luxury Lanes.
CABE is pushing back. We're a growing coalition of civic associations, taxpayers, and other organizations demanding better, affordable commuter options for suburban Maryland.
Contact your elected officials. Use our contact list. Tell them to resist MDOT's push for Luxury Lanes and protect taxpayers, communities, homes, and the environment.
See For Yourself
Videos from the Aug. 18, Aug. 20 and Aug. 25 virtual public hearings are available at: https://495-270-p3.com/your-participation/past-public-outreach/.
The last virtual hearing is also scheduled for Sept. 3, 2020.
An in-person hearing is scheduled Sept. 10, noon to 9 p.m., at Hilton Executive Meeting Center, 1750 Rockville Pike, Rockville, in Montgomery County.
To testify: register at https://495-270-p3.com/your-participation/upcoming-events/.
If you do not want to testify at a hearing but still want to provide your input, you have other ways to provide your feedback: by voicemail, email, letters, and through online and hard copy comment forms: https://495-270-p3.com/your-participation/provide-feedback/.
Comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be accepted until Nov. 9, 2020 by 11:59 p.m.