Washington, D.C.’s regional planning board has restored Maryland’s $11-billion express lanes for the Capital Beltway/Interstate-270 highway connector to its list of long-term transportation projects, following a month of active lobbying by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and other project supporters.
The July 21 decision by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board reverses its June 16 vote to drop the project from a region-wide air-quality analysis for planned major transportation projects, a prerequisite for federal environmental approval.
The plan, which has been substantially scaled back since it was first proposed in 2017, calls for adding two tolled express lanes in each direction along I-270 between the I-495/Capital Beltway and Frederick, Md., and replacing the Beltway’s existing 60-year-old Potomac River crossing with a new structure that can accommodate connections with Virginia’s express lanes system.
Opposition to Maryland’s proposed express lanes has been particularly strong in Montgomery County, Md., where most construction will take place. In addition to project costs and environmental concerns, critics have lamented the Maryland Dept. of Transportation’s focus on expanding highways at the expense of transit alternatives.
MDOT counters that most of the improvements to the densely developed 9.3-mile corridor nearest the Beltway can be completed using existing mainline and collector/distributor lanes, with additional land needed mainly for stormwater management facilities and noise walls. The new Potomac crossing would also include cycling and pedestrian lanes that would tie into the historic C&O Canal towpath and other adjacent trails.
State legislators have also faulted MDOT’s choice to rely on a public-private consortium to design, build, and operate the express lanes under a 50-year concession, given delays and cost overruns associated with the nearby $2 billion Purple Line light rail project, now awaiting selection of a new contractor to replace a Fluor-led team that departed last year.
For the express lanes predevelopment phase, a Transurban/Macquerie-led consortium selected in January has committed to spending at least $300 million in local transit services if the project moves forward. Loss of federal approval, however, would cost MDOT $50 million under the project's public=private partnership agreement, which has yet to be fully implemented due to a bid protest.
Hogan and other project backers urged the planning board to reconsider the June vote, warning that loss of an estimated $6 billion in express lane toll revenue would have a detrimental effect on regional transportation spending. In early July, MDOT identified nearly $3 billion worth of planned transportation projects at risk to be dropped or delayed, with Montgomery County bearing the brunt of the cutbacks.
Just days before the re-vote, MDOT announced it would augment the express lanes program with construction of dedicated bus lanes, either within I-270 or along a parallel corridor. The agency did not identify a source of funding for that project, however.
The express lanes proposal also benefitted from turnover on the regional board, which includes representatives from local governments in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, as well as transportation agencies. Since the June vote, several vacancies were filled by project supporters. Still, debate during the June 21 meeting was lengthy and often impassioned, with several opponents claiming that backers used the funding threats and other scare tactics to sway votes.
Nevertheless, the proposal to restore the express lanes to the long-term transportation plan passed by a comfortable margin under the board’s population-weighted voting formula.
Hogan hailed the outcome as “a great victory for Marylanders sick and tired of being stuck in soul-crushing traffic.”