Since its announcement, a plan to add toll lanes to Interstates 270 and 495 has drawn a mix of both criticism and demands for action.
As the General Assembly prepares to begin its session in January, much – although not all — of the varying perspectives on the project depend on which end of the highway someone is on.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R), former Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, and other officials have argued that the project is necessary to eliminate congestion that takes time from people’s days and limits the economic vitality of the Washington region.
The study of the project on I-270 is being done in two parts: from I-370 near Gaithersburg to Interstate 495 in Montgomery County, and from Interstate 370 to Interstate 70 in Frederick.
On the northern end of I-270, concern about traffic congestion creates an urgency among some to get something done. Further south, near where I-270 meets the Capital Beltway, concerns about congestion are balanced with questions about pollution and space in a densely built-up environment.
Traffic congestion is easily one of the biggest concerns facing Frederick County, said Delegate Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll), and one that will only get worse as the county grows.
“It impacts people’s quality of life,” he said.
The problem doesn’t just affect people who drive to Washington, D.C., Montgomery County or Baltimore, he said. Even non-commuters get caught in traffic from the spill-over effect of the commuter traffic.
“The problem is getting amplified,” Pippy said.
He said he’s looking forward to working with the Frederick County delegation and his colleagues from Montgomery County to find a solution to the P3 project.
It’s obvious that I-270 can’t currently handle the load of traffic that’s on it, said Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll).
“It’s our commuters who are getting the short end of the stick,” Hough said.
He sees the legislative session that begins in January as a critical one for the fate of the project, with legislation from last session that threatened it likely to be introduced again.
Some Montgomery legislators and other officials are looking to make the project a political issue, and some changes to committee chairmanships could have an impact as well, Hough said.
“I think it is in great danger,” he said.
One of the bills from last session that threatened the I-270 and I-495 project was filed by Montgomery County Delegate Jared Solomon (D).
The bill would increase oversight of P3 projects, including prohibiting the state’s Board of Public Works from approving P3 agreements until environmental impact statements are done, as well as require a survey of the credit rating of the private company being considered for the project, the impact of a proposed agreement on the credit rating of the state and any local government, and a recommendation of the minimum credit rating that the private partner and a private funding source would have to maintain, among other provisions.
Solomon’s bill passed the House of Delegates, but failed to come up for a vote in the Senate before the session ended.
No one thinks the status quo is working, but they differ on what the solution is, Solomon said Wednesday.
There’s a myth that the Montgomery delegation is somehow “pro-traffic,” he said, when they’re the ones who have to deal with the worst congestion.
When he comes home from Annapolis during the session, he’ll sit in traffic “long, long, long [into] the evening,” he said.
The P3 project doesn’t think about a multimodal approach to transportation, with transit and other options, Solomon said.
“To me, this solution just reeks of ‘we’re only thinking about cars,’” he said.
But he acknowledges that the project’s length creates different situations for different areas.
Interstate 270 north of Md. 200 — between Gaithersburg and Rockville — is “a completely different road.”
That’s the area that Montgomery delegate Julie Palakovich Carr (D) represents, and said she’s heard different things from constituents.
Even in Gaithersburg, there are parts of I-270 with five or six lanes, but when you get further north where the highway drops down to two lanes, there’s more urgency, she said.
In Rockville and Gaithersburg, there’s concern in communities that already built out about whether there’s enough room for an expansion, with homes and businesses that back up to the highway, she said.
She’s also heard noise and pollution concerns, as well as a lack of public transit being considered.
Some of those same concerns are voiced by Frederick County officials as well.
Delegate Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) said she strongly feels that the process needs a much more detailed environmental and economic evolution.
“I think they’re asking very legitimate questions,” she said of her Montgomery colleagues.
Senator Ron Young (D-Frederick) said he agrees with the Montgomery delegation’s concerns about pollution, the taking of property that the project would require, and making the project more transit-oriented.
In the densely-populated Washington metro area, transit has to be the ultimate solution.
Young said he thinks a monorail that’s been suggested as part of the project makes tremendous sense if it could be done in the existing I-270 right of way.
“I think we’ve got to start looking at things like that around the state,” he said.