SILVER SPRING — Local officials held a held a press conference to discuss alternatives to plans to widening local highways as a way to ease traffic congestion.
Led by Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker, the officials announced a comparison proposal for the widening of interstates 270 and 495. Hucker also serves as the chair of the Transportation and Environment committee.
In recent months, there has been considerable backlash from local officials and community members to plans that would widen the two interstates to combat heavy traffic congestion.
Local officials and the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) agree that traffic congestion in the region is severe. According to MDOT, current traffic conditions lead to heavy traffic flow for seven to 10 hours each day on the interstates. As the region becomes more populous, as is expected traffic, congestion is also expected to worsen.
MDOT SHA is considering viable alternatives to ease the congestion, many of which include widening portions of 270 and 495, which could encroach into neighborhoods and take land away from green spaces.
Most recently, one option state officials were considering was removing 34 homes and four businesses to make way for the widening interstates.
Originally, the Board of Public Works was scheduled to vote on an alternative on which to move forward. However, one of the board members of the was unavailable, and local officials insisted that all must be present for the vote.
The Board of Public Works is staffed by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
“(Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick) counties have asked Annapolis for a balanced multi-modal solution to relieve congestion on our state highways. No one is more affected by congestion than we are, and our constituents are,” Hucker said. “No one has more expertise in relieving congestion and its causes and solutions (than we do). We are 100 percent for congestion relief here in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Frederick County, but MDOT’s process has shut us out.”
Hucker explained that state-level officials have not heard or been receptive to recommendations provided by local leaders.
“(What’s) worse is we have been described as not having any solutions,” Hucker said. “But the solution we propose is very clear in letters and testimony to MDOT every year of this administration and the previous one, going back at least to 2009.”
The plan is supported by many local officials from the three counties. It is more balanced, less disruptive, more protective of the environment and effective at relieving congestion than MDOT’s plan, said Hucker.
“We’re releasing this today in advance of Wednesday’s key vote in the Board of Public Works so that board members understand they have a far better alternative that enjoys the support of all elected officials in all three counties in this project,” he said.
The proposed plan, called the Locally Supported Congestion Relief Plan, would not evict any residents and would preserve local parkland. It would also be in line with local master plans, which provide guidelines for sustainable growth to specific neighborhoods and communities.
The plan includes new managed lanes and new reversible managed lanes on Interstate 270 between Frederick and Potomac. For Interstate 495, the plan provides new managed lanes between National Harbor and White Oak along with MARC improvements, park and ride improvements, and local-serving transit options.
Possible local-serving transit projects could include Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and new Metro connections, among other possibilities.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich is in support of the Congestion Relief Plan. He noted that there is a fundamental problem with widening the interstates but not the exit ramps.
“No matter what the governor does to speed people around the beltway when you get to places like Georgia Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, you’re not going anywhere fast,” Elrich said.
He explained that with more cars on the wider roadways the exit ramps will pose a new problem, one that will create backups as motorists try to get off the interstates.
Another concern Elrich noted was that a non-compete clause is buried in the state’s proposal, which would prevent measures to reduce the use of tolls.
“That would bar us from any kind of transit solutions. What if the county wanted to incentivize people to telecommute? Would that be a violation that would take people off the road?” Elrich asked.
He explained that the climate standards Montgomery County has set forth for itself would not be met under the new project. If the beltway expansion is completed, the number of cars on the road would increase, making it impossible to meet those goals.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton announced her opposition to the state’s plan during the press conference. If it passes, the Rockville area will feel an impact in green space areas like the Thomas Farm Community Center and Julius West Middle School, according to Newton.
“A business might be able to survive because they’re not necessarily looking for green spaces,” she said, “whereas, with our parks and community centers and schools, you have to be so careful.”
Newton also noted that the state’s proposal of widening first in the southern part of Montgomery County seemed backward. She explained that if widening was deemed crucial, it should start near Frederick and work its way down south because the northern part of the interstate bottlenecks in multiple places.
The Board of Public Works is expected to vote on June 5 on which plan to move forward with.