The initial study of the Frederick County portion of a project that would add toll lanes to Interstate 270 is expected to begin later this month, but a bill that could affect the project awaits a vote in the General Assembly.
The work will involve preliminary planning for the environmental study of the project stretching from Interstate 370 near Gaithersburg to Interstate 70 in Frederick. A study for 48 miles of I-270 and Interstate 495 is currently being done.
The studies are part of planning for a project that would add toll lanes to I-270 and I-495 in an effort to reduce congestion on highways in the region, which would be funded through a public-private partnership agreement, also known as a P3.
The Frederick County Chamber of Commerce received an update on plans for the project Wednesday.
Congestion on roads such as I-270 affects the county’s ability to attract businesses and its economic development, chamber President and CEO Rick Weldon said at the event.
The work would cover about 70 miles of highway in the I-270 and I-495 corridor, Lisa Choplin of the State Highway Administration told the chamber audience.
Once completed, the project will remove a traffic bottleneck at the American Legion Memorial Bridge in Montgomery County, she said.
The project would also add capacity along I-270 in Frederick County, although critics of the plan have argued that adding more lanes will only encourage more people to drive.
Congestion on Maryland highways in the National Capital Region costs the economy about $1.3 billion a year in traffic delays, and travel times are expected to increase by 70 percent by 2040, she said.
Improving the situation will require a balanced approach with the new toll lanes as well as improvements to transit, Choplin said.
With new toll lanes, travelers can pay the tolls in order to use the new lanes, which will free up space on the non-toll lanes, she said.
The toll lanes would be run by private companies, and tolls will be adjusted in order to allow traffic to maintain constant speeds. But the state would still own the road.
The entire scope of the project is expected to cost between $9 billion and $11 billion to construct.
The draft environmental impact statement for the segment of the project up to I-370 is expected by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, a Montgomery County delegate is hoping that his bill to add more oversight to the process of developing public-private partnership deals will get a chance for a vote before the General Assembly’s session ends on Monday.
Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) represents a district that stretches from the Washington, D.C., line to Wheaton and Rockville, and is basically “cut in half” by the Beltway.
Solomon said Friday that he doesn’t think adding lanes to the Beltway is the right solution, although he said it might be a better idea for parts of I-270, especially the parts north of Clarksburg, where the number of lanes drops to two.
Solomon’s bill would prohibit the state’s Board of Public Works from approving P3 agreements until environmental impact statements are done.
What if you start the process for a project using one plan or approach, and then the impact statement says you’ll have to use another approach, he asked.
The bill would also require a survey of the credit for 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.
Frederick County Councilman Kai Hagen (D) attended an event Wednesday in support of the bill.
With the massive amounts of money that the projects can cost and their long-term implications, projects need accountability for both economic and environmental issues, Hagen said Friday.
Every project should be fully examined for its potential impacts on climate change, he said.
Hagen believes Solomon’s bill would add some needed accountability for P3 projects.
But with the legislative session quickly coming to a close, Solomon is still hoping that his bill, which was passed in the House of Delegates in March, will get a vote in the state Senate.
With voting sessions scheduled for Saturday and Monday, Solomon and the bill’s co-sponsors are still “trying our darndest” to get the bill to the floor, he said Friday.