LANDOVER — Congressman Anthony Brown (MD-04) held a town hall meeting on May 23 to give residents a chance to get more information as well as voice their concerns about the proposed plan to widen and toll the Capital Beltway (I-495) and I-270.
The town hall, which drew a full house at the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Complex, followed a series of public workshops on the project held by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) after their release of the Managed Lanes Study on April 13.
The highway expansion project for I-495 and I-270 would be run through a Public-Private Partnership (P3) in an effort to improve over 70 miles of highway in Maryland.
During the town hall meeting, Brown clarified that a P3 involves the state hiring a private contractor to invest in and work on the project and the money generated after it is completed, in this case, through toll lanes — will go back to the private contractor to pay off their expenses.
The options for potential changes to the two highways have been narrowed down to seven alternatives. One involves not building any new lanes at all, and the rest involve a combination of high-occupancy toll lanes, express toll lanes and high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The building of the new lanes would require the removal of at least 30 homes and businesses just off the highways.
“What we’ve seen from the past decades of research and infrastructure projects is the solution to congestion and crumbling infrastructure isn’t widening highways,” Brown said during the meeting. “More people are on roads, and it’s not less congestion. You may have short-term relief, but you invite more people onto the road.”
Brown, along with other elected officials and community residents in attendance, said that instead they support greater investment in public transit as the solution to the high volume of traffic on these highways. Brown advocated for more transit-oriented development, walkable communities, and mixed-use development around the 15 Metro stations in Prince George’s County.
Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker said Prince George’s County is “not alone” in their opposition of the project. He also has heard serious concerns expressed from Montgomery and Frederick County residents that the tolls would be too expensive and would not make a meaningful difference in the long run.
“If you think our summers are too hot already, if you think there is too much congestion and not enough sprawl or too much sprawl, if you think we have too much air pollution and too many families in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties fighting asthma, just wait until they start building four more lanes of asphalt dividing our communities north and south,” he said. The MDOT SHA has held numerous public workshops on the highway-expansion project, but it is “hard to find any supporters,” Hucker said. It is a missed opportunity not to get input from the public.
“Neglecting public input and the input of our local government is the wrong thing to do on any project, but it’s especially wrong on this project,” Hucker said. “This isn’t just any project; this is the largest P3 project in North American History.”
On behalf of the Montgomery County Council, Hucker said, they have told the Montgomery County Parks Commission not to take a single acre of the 250 acres they want to take for this project until there has been an environmental impact statement, an independent fiscal analysis and approval of local county government. The council has also sent a detailed letter and a petition, which at this point has collected over 4,000 signatures.
Members of organizations such as Citizens Against Beltway Expansion (CABE), Neighbors Against Beltway Expansion and the Sierra Club were vocal about their opposition to the project. Their members passed out information to attendees before and after the meeting.
Paula Fitz-William, a member of CABE, said there has not been enough analysis of the project, and it is “not following the standard procedures.”
“They want to widen the beltway by four lanes, four total tolls lanes, two in each direction, but haven’t done appropriate accounting for the impacts on neighborhoods, on local roads and on the environment,” sad Fitz-William.
Several issues were brought up by the residents who attended the meeting. Some of them involved frustrations over constant back and forth with projects that never seem to end, such as the Purple Line, the impact that the federal government can have on the project, where the money will go if the plan is approved and where residents who are opposed can apply the best pressure to stop it.
Shuri James, a Landover resident, said she has lived in Prince George’s County for 30 years and has seen a lot of development take place during that time.
“What concerns me more than anything is that as the area has expanded…I find it quite interesting that as far as the community is concerned we are never ever asked what do we feel, what do we want. Stuff is always just pushed on us.”
What happens as a result is homes are taken, housing prices increase, people can’t afford the fares to get to work to pay for the increased prices and they end up being displaced, James said.
College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn brought up the fact that I-270 was widened in the ‘90s and it is back to the same level it was before. Other things can be done, but people need to think creatively, he said.
“When we build new highways, it impacts the patterns of development and it causes more development…it brings more people onto the road(s). I have yet to see anything from the State Highway Administration saying the same thing won’t happen here,” he said.
“It’s great to see elected officials listening to the community,” said Chevy Chase resident Ross Frilce. “I think it’s completely opposite to what the state is doing — taking public input, meeting people opposed or highly concerned. Any venue that allows people to have a voice is good.”
The project is currently in the alternatives-study phase, which is supposed to reach a final decision by June 14. Next, an environmental impact statement will be completed. Brown and other elected officials who had been at the meeting urged the public to go to the MDOT SHA website to post their thoughts about the project and make their voices heard.