State Releases Final Analysis of Toll Lane Project, Paving the Way for Likely Lawsuits


If the State Highway Administration’s plan to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 is the subject of future litigation, as many expect, those lawsuits will be based on a document that just came from be issued, a federal environmental impact statement (FEIS), according to a senior planning official in Montgomery County.

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If the State Highway Administration’s plan to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 is the subject of future litigation, as many expect, those lawsuits will be based on a document that just came from be issued, a federal environmental impact statement (FEIS), according to a senior planning official in Montgomery County.

The long-awaited document, years in the making, was jointly released Friday by the SHA and the Federal Highway Administration. The 26,000-page SIEF represents an update of two earlier documents, a draft and an additional version, which county planners and the project’s many supporters and foes have been skirmishing over for some time.

It represents the government’s assessment of how the state’s plan to add variable-price toll lanes to both highways, as well as the reconstruction of the American Legion Bridge, would impact the environment, stormwater, traffic flows, social inequalities, historic sites, surrounding communities. , neighborhood parks and more.

Its release comes as federal officials debate whether to approve Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s proposal to widen frequently congested highways. The project, carried out in tandem with the concessionaire chosen by Virginia and Maryland, Transurban, represents a top priority for the outgoing governor. A “record of decision” is expected from the federal government in mid-August.

“It provides the basis for making a final decision,” said Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board. “It also gives opponents of the project a fixed target to challenge this assessment.”

The report assessed a study area extending from a point south of the George Washington Parkway/I-495 interchange in Virginia along the Beltway into Montgomery County, then north along I-270 to the I-370. Hogan offers four variable fare toll lanes, two in each direction, in this section. Existing lanes would remain free, although a car pool lane along the west fork of I-270 would be given to Transurban.

State Highway officials said they assessed 5,000 comments submitted by the public and that many of the suggestions they received helped reshape the estimated $4 billion project. They cited the decision to allow transit vehicles and cars with at least three occupants free use of toll lanes, a refocusing of the project to “prioritize” rebuilding the aging and often congested American Legion Bridge , the addition of a bicycle and walking path on the bridge and reduced impacts on parks and historic sites. In addition, the project no longer calls for the taking of homes or businesses.

Although numerous measures were taken between the draft and the final environmental studies to mitigate the impacts, the toll lanes would still have a “direct” effect on 361 properties, according to the report. More than 450 acres of forest canopy, nearly one million acres of waterway, 55 acres of “rare, threatened and endangered species habitat” and 163 acres of “unique and sensitive areas” would also be affected.

Analysts concluded that toll lanes would provide “significant operational benefits” to commuters and that users of toll lanes and existing lanes would experience reduced travel times.

According to the report, traffic impacts on the roads that feed into I-270 and the ring road would be mixed. The state’s chosen design would reduce arterial delays by 4.8 percent, “despite some localized increases in arterial traffic near managed lane access interchanges.”

Failure to move forward with toll lanes, the report concludes, would lead to “slow travel speeds, significant delays, long journey times and an unreliable network” in the future. Montgomery County is home to many large employers and many suburban Washington, DC residents commute to jobs in DC and Northern Virginia. (Virginia began installing “managed” lanes a decade ago. Transurban’s U.S. headquarters are at Tysons Corner.)

Emmet Tydings, co-founder of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, called SIEF “a big win because it addresses all of the biggest pain points and wish lists. [items] that individuals and groups have been asking for for some years.

“There’s $500 million for public transit, zero home and business taken, a Bike/Ped feature on the [bridge] connection to C&O Canal Road, complete avoidance of Morningstar Cemetery, 90% less impact on Plumbers Island, more stormwater management improvements, and EFSI exceeds original targets of the Severe Reduction Project congestion and increased travel times,” he said in a statement.

A coalition of environmental and civic organizations made a request to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg just hours after the report was released on Friday, calling the state’s analysis of future greenhouse gas emissions insufficient. greenhouse and impacts on environmental justice.

“An outright rejection of the Managed Lane Study is appropriate given the failure of the Maryland Department of Transportation to meet federal requirements,” the groups wrote. “But at the very least, we urge the USDOT to require that a complete and correct report [supplemental draft environmental impact statement]with a 90-day public comment period, be published to address deficiencies.

An MDOT spokesperson said the state’s analysis was conducted “in full compliance with federal requirements.”

The SIEF released on Friday is open for public comment for 30 days. Critics say a month isn’t long enough, given the length and complexity of the report.

Prosecutions are considered a certainty. Even if they fail, they could waste time that limited-time Hogan doesn’t have. A company that unsuccessfully bid on the toll lane project has sued the state and that trial is expected to begin this summer. Moreover, Transurban has yet to find a construction company to replace the one that left its consortium, Accelerate Maryland Partners, nearly a year ago.

Even if MDOT and Transurban are able to reach a deal, observers say it will be difficult to secure a construction contract from the Public Works Board before Hogan’s term ends.

Anderson, Montgomery’s chief planning officer, said the release of the SIEF does not guarantee that federal officials will approve the plan. But he said few projects go that far without getting the green light.

“In practice, they wouldn’t have taken a project this far in the process…if they didn’t have a good enough idea of ​​what they wanted to do,” he said.

In 2017, Hogan proposed adding toll lanes to the ring road between spurs I-270 and Maryland Route 5 near Oxon Hill. This stretch is now listed as ‘No Improvements’, although Transurban’s CEO has repeatedly said the company’s goal is to have ‘express lanes’ throughout the Beltway. The section north of I-270 from Montgomery Village to I-70 in Frederick County, another original Hogan priority, is part of a separate environmental scan that won’t be completed until long after he leaves office. .


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