Sligo Creek at Park Valley, downstream of stormwater runoff from the Beltway (and many other paved surfaces). Photo used with permission by Kit Gage, Advocacy Chair, Friends of Sligo Creek.

As GGWash has been covering, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is pushing to widen parts of the Beltway and I-270 with privately-run toll roads, ostensibly to address traffic congestion. As an environmentalist, my colleagues and I are especially concerned about how Hogan’s highway-widening plan would harm local air quality, rivers, parks, and more. Monday’s record-setting storm illustrates just how dangerous impervious roadways can become in extreme weather, and the damage continues when that polluted water eventually ends up in local waterways.

Audubon Naturalist Society and our many partners are deeply concerned about the highway expansion plan following the recent Board of Public Works vote to pass it. Adding more pavement is the opposite of what our region needs to grow in a dense, transit-oriented, urbanist way that preserves as much nature as possible and makes it accessible to everyone.

Loss of parkland and more stormwater pollution

Our stream valley parks cool and clean our air, filter our water, provide home and habitat to wildlife like migrating birds, foxes, and turtles, and give people in our densely-populated region a physical and mental health boost. With this project, we could lose 70-90 acres of critical, stream valley parks in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. That’s on par with what was lost for the Intercounty Connector.

There’s no way to create new streams in a dense community. We would forever lose what far-sighted planners have worked so hard and for so long to protect. Rock Creek, which meanders parallel to the Beltway between Mormon Temple and the Grosvenor Strathmore Metro station, would need to be moved and/or put underground.

Moving Rock Creek could have devastating consequences for the wildlife that depend on its banks and waters. Residents in both counties could lose critical recreational opportunities. For these reasons, as well as many others, the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) voted to “non-concur” with MDOT’s alternatives on June 12. Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm, a National Park Service property, are also right in the path of a possible expansion in Prince George’s County.

This spotted salamander is an example of the wildlife at risk from highway expansion in Montgomery County. They need high-quality forest habitat near streams and wetlands. Image by DEP Montgomery County.

Right-of-way expansion could also mean up to 348 additional paved acres. The Stormwater Partners Network of Montgomery County, which I’m vice-chair of, is worried those new paved acres won’t get modern stormwater treatment, worsening an already terrible runoff problem from the Beltway especially. This warmed and polluted water gushes into our streams, scouring them out and really harming water quality.

All new pavement contributes to water pollution when we endure storms bigger than the capacity of our water treatment systems. This problem will only worsen as we see more frequent and intense storms due to climate change.

We can’t afford to widen our highways now

Highways are a 20th century technology, and they are the wrong solution for our transportation woes amidst our 21st century climate crisis. They spurred the growth of the suburbs, led to disinvestment in rail transportation and freight, fragmented our natural landscapes, and pushed the United States towards a car-dependent economy driven by fossil fuels.

The transportation sector is now the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. After years of progress, our air quality is now going back down rather than getting cleaner. Auto emissions lead to higher asthma rates and premature deaths.

In case Hogan and Franchot aren’t aware, we are living in a climate crisis now. Adding lanes won’t take vehicles off the road—it will only add them, due to induced demand, and will lock us into another generation of sprawl-oriented growth and development. We need to invest in transit and incentivize people to use it, and allow them to affordably live closer to their workplaces.

MDOT has claimed repeatedly that speeding the flow of traffic (while having the same or more cars on the road) will somehow decrease greenhouse gas emissions. This claim is based on a misleading use of a traffic model—the researcher who did the original modeling has even spoken up to say the state should not have made those claims.

Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles also claimed the state can still meet its climate change goals while expanding highways, but there is no universe in which we can get off fossil fuels by 2050 while still building highways in the 2020s.

Your voice is needed

Pressure from residents and advocates has helped so far—we got the governor to re-stage the project and Franchot to add amendments. But there’s more to do to slow and hopefully transform this bad idea into a true people-moving and congestion-relief scheme, not just a plan to monetize more driving for the private sector.

There will be more votes, debate, and proposals in next year’s General Assembly, and negotiations with both County governments and the MNCPPC. Stay informed and share your opinion with your elected officials and advocates!