By Suzanne Pollak @SuzannePollak
SILVER SPRING — Two County officials called attention to what they believed to be serious flaws in the State Highway Administration’s proposal to widen Interstates 495 and 270 during a meeting Monday night at the Silver Spring Civic Building.
The state’s 19 proposed alternatives, some of which include adding express toll lanes, are not designed to relieve congestion, but rather to provide drivers who are willing to pay increased tolls more predictable travel times, explained Chris Conklin, County deputy director for transportation policy, and Carol Rubin, special project manager with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
They were told by state officials that the Purple Line was designed to relieve traffic congestion, not the proposed road-widening project, Conklin said.
The meeting was arranged by the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, which also invited representatives from the State Highway Administration to attend but were told no one could come until after the New Year.
Adding general-purpose lanes is rarely done anymore. Managed lanes – traffic lanes that come with restrictions – are what is popular now, Rubin said. Still, she added, not much is gained if a general-purpose lane becomes a managed lane for only three hours a day during rush hour.
The state is considering using managed lanes so drivers will be able to predict when they will reach their destinations.
If a managed toll lane becomes congested, the cost to drivers would rise. When the toll becomes too high, people will forgo using the managed lane, allowing those still willing to pay to know how long their trip will take.
Depending on whether two or four lanes are added, traffic planners estimate that the new lanes “would fill up in three to five years,” said Rubin, who referred to the project as “the ICC [Intercounty Connector] on steroids.”
Currently, the state is conducting an Environmental Impact Study, which involves surveying land around the highways, including throughout the Sligo Creek Golf Course.
Following that, construction is expected to begin in 2020 and be completed in 2025. The work is being streamlined, allowing several requirements and permits to be worked on simultaneously.
The Trump administration chose this project to show others how to fast-track the time needed to construct privatized for-profit toll lanes.
The County Department of Transportation expressed concern about the lack of study of access roads, impact to parkland, stormwater and the environment and that there is little emphasis on public transportation, Conklin said.
However, he noted, his department “does not have a regulatory oversight role. We are in some ways small players in this.”
Rubin added, “We own most of the land that surrounds the study area. The parkland that would be impacted.” While her office manages the parkland, that land actually is under the control of the federal government, since federal funds were used to obtain the land, she said.
“They need us to survey that land,” Rubin said, noting that the federal government does not agree with her assessment.
She said the federal government could use its right of eminent domain to get more land.
“That’s an issue that we are going to have to grapple with,” she said.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has repeatedly said that no homes will be demolished for the project and that all the work will take place within the current right-of-way.
However, Rubin rebutted, “They haven’t selected an alternative. They haven’t selected even the ones [proposals] they are going to study, so how can he [Rahn] say they aren’t going to go beyond the right-of-way?”
The sound barriers on the road’s perimeter were basically built at the right-of-way so it would be hard to widen any lanes without going beyond the current right-of-way, she said.
Under the proposal, all work would be in done in partnership with a private partner, who will pick up all costs.
E. Dollie Wolverton of the Woodside Forest area of Silver Spring said she was concerned about her and her neighbors’ homes near Holy Cross Hospital.
“People are really frightened of losing their homes,” she said.
Julie Englund of Woodside Park Civic Association in Silver Spring expressed concern that traffic along Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, at the on and off ramps of Interstate 495, would increase in an area that already is overburdened.
She wondered if one day those roads would have to be widened “and they take more of our land.”
Following the meeting, Brad German, co-chair of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, said he realized “just how half-baked” the state’s proposal was. “The state is pushing this, and just hoping it works out, That’s not how the process is supposed to work,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”