Image by the author.

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) is beginning the federal environmental study process of the governor's proposal to widen the Capital Beltway and I-270, which will be one of the largest and most impactful infrastructure projects in the region’s history if it comes to fruition. The project is being expedited and within two years, the state expects to have a detailed plan for widening the highways.

Last September, Governor Larry Hogan announced his Traffic Relief Plan to add four tolled express lanes to I-270, the Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway through a public-private partnership (P3). Unfortunately, no transit enhancements or any multi-modal elements are included whatsoever, and we know that widening highways doesn't help congestion in the long term.

While tolls can sometimes be useful, Maryland's express lanes business model depends on most people staying stuck in traffic so that tolled lanes can make money. Unlike a congestion charge which tolls everyone and encourages people to use alternate modes, adding tolled capacity adjacent to existing free lanes mostly just allows the wealthy to bypass traffic.

Image by MDOT.

MDOT put out a request for information (RFI) from private sector firms soon after that announcement, and received 27 responses last winter from infrastructure and finance firms around the world. Now MDOT has begun the first phase of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The scope of the study is smaller than the governor’s announced plan in the fall, and includes only the Beltway and the portion of I-270 south of I-370.

Hogan claims no public funds are needed, but firms disagree

At the same time as the environmental process, MDOT said it will seek proposals from private firms to build and operate the planned toll lanes. At the announcement of the Traffic Relief Plan in the Fall, Hogan claimed that no public funds would be needed as the project would be constructed and operated under a P3.

However, several of the firms that responded to MDOT’s RFI expressed skepticism that such a large project would not require public funds. One firm said, “There are not a lot of projects that can fund a capital cost of this magnitude through toll revenues alone.”

Image by MDOT.

There's been more drama recently. A proposed contract between an engineering firm and MDOT for consultant services related to the P3 listed the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund (which is funded through fuel taxes and other fees) as the source of funding for the $68.5 million contract. An article by The Daily Record published April 13 showed MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn formerly worked for one of the firms involved, raising questions about a conflict of interest. The contract proposal was withdrawn the next week.

MDOT plans to issue a request for proposals in 2019 and select a P3 concessionaire in 2020 when the final EIS and record of decision are made. If things go according to MDOT’s schedule, construction could begin as soon as 2021. Given the scope of this project, which covers 50+ miles of highway through built-up areas, an EIS process lasting less than two years seems optimistic. Nonetheless, it is clear that MDOT and the governor are serious about expediting this project.

Here are the next steps

This past week, MDOT hosted open houses in Upper Marlboro, Clarksburg, and Bethesda to offer residents information about the plan and to seek comments on the scope of the EIS. The public comment period for the EIS scope closes on May 1, and a final open house is being held Tuesday at 6:30 pm at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt.

After May 1, MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration will continue the EIS process, drafting a purpose and need statement and developing alternatives as required by law. It is unclear to what extent those studied alternatives will involve transit improvements.

MDOT expects to hold public meetings this summer at which residents can review the Alternatives Retained for Detailed Study as the EIS progresses. Those meetings will be the next opportunity for public input in the study process until sometime in 2019 when a draft EIS is developed. MDOT plans to have a final EIS and Record of Decision ready by early 2020, when the plans for added lanes will be ready for more detailed engineering and construction.

Given the scope, potential cost, and lack of transit, it’s important for area residents to be informed about this project as its expedited schedule moves forward.