I-270 approaching the Beltway by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's plans to add lanes to I-495 and I-270 would widen these roads significantly, and some homes and other buildings may have to be demolished to make room.

It's essential for everyone to understand how large the property takings would have to be — especially for residents who live near the highways who may be forced to move out of their homes. However, the state government seems to be dodging the question.

Hogan's study seems to favor options that mean demolishing homes

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT)'s “I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study” began this spring. Officially, it is considering no-build and transit options as alternatives to widening the Beltway and I-270 in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, which would be ideal because widening highways actually makes traffic problems worse.

However, the criteria for analyzing options — such as ability to evacuate the region and benefitting trucks as well as commuters — seem slanted toward highway-widening options, in particular express toll lanes.

Express toll lanes have been derided as “Lexus lanes” due to the high tolls required to maintain express speeds and pay for construction costs. The Maryland Transit Opportunity Coalition (MTOC) recently calculated that the I-270 widening would require $41 one-way tolls to pay off expected construction costs. (It specifically looked at the section between Frederick and Shady Grove.)

Given this slant in the criteria and the fact that the vast majority of the proposed options in the study involve adding Beltway lanes, it’s not surprising that residents are demanding more information on how much land taking would be needed for the proposed widenings. Particularly in Montgomery County, the freeways in question run directly next to numerous single-family homes and apartment complexes, including much-needed market-affordable housing.

MDOT's public slide on the proposed Beltway and I-270 expansion that most closely matches Hogan's proposal: two express toll lanes in each direction. Note that widths are not shown. Image by Maryland Department of Transportation.

Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn has claimed that housing displacement would be minimal. However, a 2009 study of widening I-270 north of Shady Grove — which has vanished from the MDOT website but is still available through the Montgomery County Council — indicated on pages 39-40 that about 300 low-income homes would be displaced in Gaithersburg by this widening.

Widening the Beltway and the southern portion of I-270, which go through even denser areas, is likely to cause even greater displacement.

How wide will the expanded roadway actually be?

The slides and posters MDOT presented at its public meetings about the alternative selection process do not show proposed average lane or highway widths for the road-widening options. However, at a meeting on July 18, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) members indicated that MDOT showed the M-NCPPC diagrams showing typical highway widths post-expansion before the meeting.

You can listen to the discussion in the extract from the official recording of the meeting below:

M-NCPPC Chair Casey Anderson asking MDOT about drawings of roadway widths for the proposed Beltway and I-270 widening at a July 18 meeting. Image by M-NCPPC.

At this meeting, M-NCPPC Chair Casey Anderson asked the State Highway Administration (SHA) to make the diagrams showing proposed roadway widths public. Lisa Choplin, Project Director with the SHA, replied that it “would be irresponsible for us to put widths out there” because the diagrams only showed typical widths, and there would likely be different widths in different places.

M-NCPPC Commissioner Natali Fani-González voiced concern: “How can the public understand and comment unless it knows the impact?” Shortly after the meeting, MTOC requested that the diagrams presented to some M-NCPPC staff members be made public, citing Fani-González’s comments.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn responded, denying that any diagrams beyond what was presented at public meetings existed.

MDOT is evading Public Information Act requests for this information

The Action Committee for Transit (ACT) attempted to clarify the matter by filing a state Public Information Act request for eight items related to the managed lanes study, including “the documents which Choplin of SHA said it would be 'irresponsible' to release.” MDOT replied that it could not comply without clarification of what documents Choplin was talking about.

ACT responded on August 22 by referring to the video clip shown above. MDOT replied five days later saying it would cost $6264.33 to find the documents the group had requested, rejecting the organization's request for a fee waiver because:

“MDOT has a dual responsibility to release public records when legally permitted to do so and recover costs. MDOT must also consider our constitutional fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Maryland to recover the public dollars expended to fulfill these requests. While fees recovered can never fully reimburse for all costs involved in researching and processing a PIA request, MDOT policy seeks to recover as many costs as permissible to ensure the integrity of the Transportation Trust Fund.”

This reasoning is concerning, as Miriam Schoenbaum said on behalf of ACT: “According to MDOT's reasoning, it would never be in the public interest to grant a fee waiver. In that case, why does the law explicitly include a provision for granting a fee waiver in the public interest?”

It’s not clear why MDOT appears to be giving public advocacy groups the run-around in their request for information that residents need to evaluate the proposed highway widenings. This refusal to release the documents has harmed the public's ability to contribute meaningfully to the public input process, which closed on Monday.

However, people's homes are on the line, and without better transparency, we don’t know how many homes are in danger of being torn down for widening. It's essential that the documents be released as soon as possible, so that the public can make better-informed decisions about the project and let their elected representatives know what they want.