LANDOVER — Congressman Anthony Brown (MD-04) held a town hall meeting to give residents a chance to get more information, as well as voice their concerns, on the proposed plan to widen and toll the Capital Beltway (I-495) and I-270 on May 23.
The town hall, which drew a full house at the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Complex, follows a series of public workshops on the project held by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) after their release of the Managed Lanes Study on April 13.
The highway expansion project for I-495 and I-270 will run through a Public-Private Partnership (P3) to improve to more than 70 miles of highway in Maryland.
During the town hall meeting, Brown clarified that a P3 involves the state hiring a private contractor to invest in and work on the project and the money generated after it is completed, in this case through toll lanes, will go back to the private contractor to pay off their expenses.
The options for potential changes to the two highways have been narrowed down to seven alternatives. One of them involves not building any new lanes at all, and the rest include a combination of high occupancy toll lanes, express toll lanes and high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The building of new lanes would require the removal of at least 30 homes and businesses just off the highways.
“What we’ve seen from the past decades of research and infrastructure projects is the solution to congestion and crumbling infrastructure isn’t widening highways,” Brown said during the meeting. “More people are on roads, and it’s not less congestion. You may have short-term relief, but you invite more people onto the road.”
Brown, along with other elected officials and residents in attendance, said they instead support more significant investment in public transit as the solution to the high volume of traffic on these highways. Brown advocated for more transit-oriented development, walkable communities as well as mixed-use development around the 15 Metro stations in Prince George’s County.
One of the many things that the crowd at the meeting took issue with regarding the project is the lack of transparency in the process, which Turner expanded on from the perspective of the county government.
“We go through an annual process called our Transportation Priority Process each year,” said County Council Chair Todd Turner. “I can tell you for the last several years; we have lots of transportation priorities in Prince George’s County…I can say, as of this point, toll lanes on any of the highways in Prince George’s County are not on our transportation priority list.”
The county council sent a letter to the MDOT SHA last year asking them to brief the council on the project, to which they responded they were “too busy.”
They eventually did have a meeting in March just before the alternative options were released, but these were not mentioned to the council at that meeting. The committee later wrote to the Board of Public Works and got the decision to move the project forward delayed.
The council wants their voice heard, Turner said, and in a letter to the MDOT SHA, they requested three things: an independent assessment, completion of an environmental impact statement and approval from local government.
“For me, that’s not the way it should be at the state level or the county level or the local level. You have to cooperate,” Turner said.
Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker said Prince George’s County is “not alone” in their opposition of the project and the Montgomery County Council has taken action by sending a detailed letter and a petition that has at this point collected over 4,000 signatures.
Members of organizations such as Citizens Against Beltway Expansion (CABE), Neighbors Against Beltway Expansion and the Sierra Club passed out information to attendees before and after the meeting and were vocal about their opposition to the project.
Paula Fitz-William, a member of CABE, said there has not been enough analysis on the project and it is “not following the standard procedures.”
“They want to widen the beltway by four lanes, four total tolls lanes, two in each direction, but haven’t done appropriate accounting for the impacts on neighborhoods, on local roads and on the environment,” sad Fitz-William.
Several issues were brought up by the residents who attended the meeting. Some of them involved have frustrations over the constant back and forth with projects that never seem to end, the impact that the federal government can have on the project, where the money will go if the plan is approved and where residents who are opposed can apply the best pressure to stop it.
Shuri James, a Landover resident, said she has lived in Prince George’s County for 30 years and has seen a lot of development take place in that time.
“What concerns me more than anything is that as the area has expanded…I find it quite interesting that as far as the community is concerned, we are never ever asked what do we feel, what do we want. Stuff is always just pushed on us.”
What happens as a result is homes are taken, housing prices increase, people can’t afford the fares to get to work to pay for the increased prices, and they end up being displaced, James said.
College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn brought up that I-270 was widened in the 90s and it is back to the same level it was before. Other things can be done, but people need to think creatively.
“When we build new highways, it impacts the patterns of development, and it causes more development…it brings more people onto the road. I have yet to see anything from the State Highway Administration saying the same thing won’t happen here,” he said.
Daisy Nelloms, from Mitchellville, felt that the meeting was a good opportunity to learn more about what the project entails but hoped that this would not be the only town hall meeting on it.
“I hope this is not the only meeting, that there are more, and that they reach out to other parts of the county and people who will be affected…it has energized me in how to learn more about it and if I don’t think it’s best for not just me the but the county, to fight.”
The project is currently in the alternatives study phase, which is supposed to have a final decision by June 14.