GREENBELT — The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) held a public workshop for their I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study on April 23.
It was the third of eight workshops following the release of the Managed Lanes Study on April 13 which cites the need for widening the state highways.
During the workshop, two presentations were led by Project Director Lisa Choplin and Deputy Director Jeff Folden. Afterward, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions as well as go to information tables to learn more about the project.
The I-495 and I-270 highway expansion will be run through a Public-Private Partnership (P3) and will include improvements to over 70 miles of highway in Maryland, (the stretch of highway beginning at the George Washington Parkway to the west of MD-5), to address existing and future traffic conditions.
The P3 process will allow the state to use resources and innovation from the private sector to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the potential transportation improvements.
According to Choplin, traffic in the National Capital Region lasts between seven to 10 hours per day and extends to local roads causing congestion everywhere. The regional population is expected to grow by 1.2 million people and one million jobs by 2040 which will have a major impact on traffic as it will cause an extra 300,000 vehicles on I-270 by then.
“That has a really great impact on all of our lives,” Choplin said. “It impacts our ability to pick our children up from daycare, to go see our grandchildren play soccer, go to doctors appointments…That overall has an impact on the quality of our lives, and it also has an impact on the economic viability of the region.”
Folden presented a list of seven screened alternatives that the MDOT SHA have narrowed down as potential options for the highways following the completion of additional traffic, financial and environmental analyses. The seven alternatives range from a number of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, express toll lanes (ETL) and high-occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV).
The alternative with the least amount of work is the No Build alternative which does not require adding more lanes to the highway, followed by Alternative 5 which will add one HOT managed land of I-495 and I-270.
The rest of the alternatives range from two HOT or ETL lanes on one or both sides of each highway along with HOV lanes and reversible lanes.
After the presentation, Choplin and Folden opened the floor from a Q&A session. However, they were met with skepticism from many in the room. Questions ranged from wondering why can’t tolls be put on already existing lanes, future projections of traffic, how the organizations know all of this work will really decrease traffic and what will happen in the event of increased development several years down the line causing the roads to return to capacity.
There were also concerns about the taking of property and the expense of the tolls. The Managed Lanes Study says that 34 residential homes, as well as four businesses, will need to be taken down for all of the alternatives except the No Build Alternative.
“Up to this point I’m still skeptical of charging poor people more money to ride on the beltway to get to places faster,” said Delegate Alonzo Washington who attended the meeting.
“My community has been trying to figure out what are the better ways we can move people around in our area which is mass transit. It’s not always going to be widening roads. And I’m concerned that this is going to impact so many homes in Prince George’s County like they did when they first built the capital beltway.”
Amanda Dewey, a member of the Berwyn Heights Town Council, said she is “frustrated” with the process so far. She said she feels as though the decision has already been made despite claims that the No Build Alternative is an option and that this is a “short-sighted plan.”
“Removal of property and environmental impact are really concerning to me, and to me, toll lanes give some people the opportunity to buy their way out of the problem that’s going to continue to exist if we don’t invest and focus on transportation alternatives. I don’t think either is long-term and sustainable solutions to transportation issues in the area.”
Ethan Sweep, another member of the Berwyn Heights Town Council, said the FWHA and MDOT SHA gave the same presentation not long ago at the Four Cities Meeting, which consists of College Park, New Carrollton, Greenbelt and Berwyn Heights, but he feels as though they have not been responsive to the concerns of the community.
“They said ‘oh transit is one part of this equation,’ but here we’re only talking about widening the roads,” said Brian Davis, a College Park resident. “They didn’t establish in what ways transit is going to be used to its full capacity to take cars off the road as opposed just to allow more cars to get on the road.”
Sweep added that he wonders about the environmental impact of the project.
“It also concerns me about all the acreage that they’re losing from forested areas, wetlands, unique and sensitive acres, and I would really wish that they would have some sort of remediation plan where they plan to plant trees elsewhere or go around it.”
Not everyone was against the plan. Ronaldo Nicholson from Washington, D.C. said he travels both for work and on the weekends, and it’s impossible to predict how long his commute will take due to the current traffic conditions.
“I like the managed lanes alternatives,” he said. “I like the options of being either able to pay to get predictable travel time like in Virginia, or I can go adrift and take the general public lanes.”
The next steps in the process will be for the MDOT SHA and the FWHA to complete a more detailed analysis as well as a technical report which will be released to the public by the end of the year, Folden said. They will release a final impact statement by fall of 2020 and move forward with construction by the end of 2021.
The next public workshop will be held May 14 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Suitland Community Center.