SILVER SPRING — It was standing room only at a town hall meeting on May 5 about the potential widening of Interstates 495 and 270.
The town hall was organized by Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker in advance of the Maryland Board of Public Works vote on the widening project, originally scheduled for later this week.
The project, proposed by the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), aims to relieve severe traffic congestion on I-495 and I-270.
According to MDOT, current congestion leads to heavy traffic flow for seven to 10 hours each day on the Beltway. As population in the area continues to grow in the coming years, officials expect the traffic congestion to worsen along with it.
The FHA and MDOT SHA are researching the viability of solutions to ease the traffic congestion, such as widening the two interstates and adding toll lanes.
The project is being met with considerable resistance from the local community and local elected officials. Previous town halls hosted by MDOT SHA have drawn hundreds of community members, and grassroots organizations have sprung up in opposition to the project.
Widening portions of either roadway would force the removal of homes and businesses that border the interstates.
According to MDOT SHA and the FHA, approximately 34 homes and four businesses would need to be relocated along I-495.
Hucker’s town hall meeting, held at the Silver Spring Civic Building, brought hundreds of community members, many of them toting protest signs against the potential interstate widening.
Jane Rigby, a community member from Silver Spring, attended the town hall with her family. She said that if the beltway is widened, neighborhood playgrounds will be lost.
“We go to the Indian Terrace Park all the time; that’s our neighborhood park, that’s our playground, that’s our soccer field so if they pave that over then we don’t have a park anymore and we don’t have a place to play,” Rigby said.
Andrea Leistra of Silver Spring came to the town hall with Rigby. She noted that one of her concerns is the impact of an influx of cars on residential roads.
“It feels like they’re going to put the entire state’s-worth of traffic onto our neighborhood streets,” Leistra said.
Leistra and Rigby agreed that a viable option would be to expand transit options along the Beltway.
“We are increasingly concerned about the widening of 495 and 270,” Hucker said. “We don’t know how this project will impact our neighborhoods, how it will compromise our environment, how it will impact our commutes and how it will impact our state’s finances. This proposal has been managed like the runaway bus in the movie ‘Speed,’ and it’s our job to slow it down.”
Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin was also in attendance at the town hall. He noted that those against the project have already experienced one success in the fight – local officials were able to postpone the vote to approve the project by the Board of Public Works. The vote was originally scheduled for May 8, according to Hucker’s office. However, the vote has been delayed until all three members are present and ready to vote.
“I want to make sure that before we move forward with anything, that we have an environmental impact study, a financial analysis and we have a thorough and transparent transportation analysis,” Raskin said.
Other local officials also attended the town hall, including Montgomery County Council Vice President Sidney Katz, councilmembers Evan Glass and Hans Reimer and County Executive Marc Elrich.
“Probably the most disappointing thing in all of this has been the response of the governor,” Elrich said. “After months of saying they’ll keep this project within the previously agreed bounds, it was only a week after the most recent session that (the departments) announced they would need to take 34 homes and four businesses.”
Elrich explained that there are other, simpler and far-cheaper options to reducing the traffic congestion, such as converting a service lane into a high-occupancy-vehicle lane (HOV) or improving transit by providing more Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines.
He also offered a way to halt or at least slow down the project; by not giving up park land.
“I will be working with legislators; I will continue to try to lobby the people making the next stages of the decisions,” Elrich said. “I will work with parks and planning, because the original project for the Beltway says nothing more than six lanes.We’re asking parks and planning to not hand over any park land.”
Carol Rubin, who is special project manager for the I-495 and 270 widening projects, said that current projections indicate 300 acres of park land will be impacted by the project.
She said that if local officials oppose giving up their park land to make way for the project, the Montgomery County Planning Board and Prince George’s Planning Board might be receptive.
“If the councils and the executives of both (Montgomery County and Prince George’s County) say ‘Don’t transfer the park land,’ the planning boards will take that to heart,” she said.
Glass elaborated on this point further.
He noted that the State of Maryland can take homes and commercial land through eminent domain. The process of eminent domain allows the government to take private property, with compensation, for public use projects.
“But what they do not have the right to do is to take our park land, which is owned by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission,” he said. “I will be advocating strongly that the council instruct our planning board to withhold that park land from this project. It will likely ensue in a lawsuit, but we can’t give up our valuable park space in exchange for more traffic, more carbon emissions and toll lanes.”
According to Hucker’s office, the project will soon be up for a vote by the Board of Public Works. The board has three members, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Governor Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
It’s likely that the vote on the widening project will take place on May 22 when Kopp is able to attend, according to Hucker’s office.