SILVER SPRING – Fifty people gathered at the Feb. 21 Friends of Sligo Creek meeting listened as two Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission staff members spoke about the proposed road widening of Interstates 495 and 270.
Of the 19 alternatives originally proposed by the Maryland State Highway Administration, only seven remain – of which, six include adding new lanes in each direction.
Those six call for high-occupancy vehicles lanes or managed lanes. All the remaining alternatives all involve tolls, but none involve public transportation.
“The whole project is not to reduce traffic. It’s for reliable traffic time,” Jai Cole, chief of the park planning and stewardship division, told the audience at the Silver Spring Civic Center.
Many audience members wondered what land around Sligo Creek would be taken if I-495 was widened.
But Carol Rubin, special project manager with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, pointed out that the state could take part of a person’s property without taking their home. This would leave the homeowner with a much-reduced land value, she said.
In the 209 acres surrounding the proposed widening of I-495 are 26 parks. If the state took park land, by law it must give the county a new park elsewhere. But there is little land in that area for a new park, and most likely the state would try and upgrade current parks in exchange, the two women said.
“It’s not acres to acres. You can’t take half a park and give me half. You have to give me back a full park,” Cole said.
However, she said, “No matter how much you squeeze the sponge, you are not going to get 209 acres” to convert into new parks. There just isn’t that much open space or park land.
Cole said she did not believe the state would take land in order to move Sligo Creek out of the path of a widened I-495. Instead, she said, the creek could be piped in, if it came down to that.
Rubin said she expects the entire project, which is estimated to cost more than $9 billion, to be done in segments, beginning at the American Legion Bridge and progressing to the I-270. The I-495 part of the project would be last, she said.
The park and planning commission was deeded land around the beltway when the highway was first built.
“We own portions of the beltway,” Cole said, noting that will make it harder for the state to obtain rights-of-way.
The difference in some of the seven remaining alternatives involve high-occupancy versus managed lanes.
A managed lane is operated with a design so that restrictions like changing the toll rate are done to optimize traffic flow. When a managed lane gets crowded, the tolls increase.
The toll is made artificially high to convince drivers to return to the regular lanes, thereby freeing up the managed lanes. Managed lanes are for drivers who don’t care how high the toll gets, just so that they can reach their destination at a knowable time.
With managed lanes, no matter if cars are on the road at 3 a.m. on a Sunday or during rush hour, the time to reach their destination would be the same, because once these lanes become crowded and traffic slows, the toll would rise so high many drivers would not enter the managed lanes, thus freeing them up.
Stopping the state will be difficult, as neither the county council nor the county executive have a say. In Montgomery County, many governmental groups are participating in the discussions, but the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is a cooperating agency.
“They have never even briefed the county council on this project,” Rubin said.
State legislators are trying to change that and give local leaders a say. Several bills have been introduced in Annapolis, including two that would require a more-detailed environmental-impact study.
Another bill demands that no toll road be built without that county’s permission.
“It’s hard to stop or reduce a project,” Cole said.
That is why her office is working to make sure that what is finally agreed upon will have the least negative impact to homeowners and the environment.
Rubin said she is skeptical that all these bills will become law, especially since Gov. Larry Hogan could use his veto power to stop them.
However, she said “political will” is what is needed to make sure the project is done with the least damage.
“The question is, what is the political will? What is the political will to say no to the state?”
Rubin vowed that the park and planning commission will not transfer any of its land to the State Highway Commission “unless they do what we ask them to do.”
The more people’s voices are heard, the less likely it is for a private company to take the financial risk, Rubin said. Because this is a public private partnership, it is the private company and not the state that is taking the risk, she said.
The state is not a guarantor. The private company takes all the risk, Rubin added.
Beginning in mid-April, the state will hold three hearings, and Rubin said she believes more details about the widening will be revealed by then.
During the meeting, Tony Hausner, a volunteer with Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, questioned the concept of widening the interstates to relieve congestion.
“Most likely they are going to widen the beltway to two lanes on each side. As soon as you widen it, the cars are going to increase, and it will be just as congested,” he predicted.