SILVER SPRING – A standing room only crowd of homeowners afraid of losing their properties, environmental groups concerned about increased emissions, and others opposed to adding expensive toll lanes loudly voiced their opposition to the $11 billion widening projects proposed for Interstates 495 and 270.
The two-hour pep rally held at the Silver Spring Civic Building on Dec. 16 began with Montgomery County Council Vice President Tom Hucker rushing to the podium and yelling out, “Are you all ready to send a message to Annapolis?”
The overwhelming response of cheering reflected the frustration and anger that was displayed throughout the evening concerning the Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) proposal to alleviate congestion along the often jammed Beltway and I-270.
The project is expected to add special voluntary toll lanes and wider roads without including new public transportation options or reversible lanes, as favored by area politicians and residents.
The rally was held following MDOT’s recent proposal to allow the state to take properties before an environmental review is conducted to expedite the construction schedule even though final plans have not been approved.
Because of these last-minute amendments, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, one of three members of the Board of Public Works, said he has questions and is not ready to vote on the project. Therefore, the matter was removed from this week’s Board of Public Works meeting.
Hucker, who called for the rally, said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has been pushing this project through while barely seeking input from the politicians, planners and residents most affected.
Calling it an “irresponsible proposal,” Hucker said that Hogan underestimated the local opposition.
“Your hard work is paying off. We have some serious momentum,” Hucker told the enthusiastic crowd.
“You changed the narrative” that the project was “all but inevitable,” Hucker said.
If the Board of Public Works’ vote on the project is delayed into January, the Maryland General Assembly is prepared to introduce bills that would call for additional studies before a final vote would take place, Hucker said.
“You can’t let up now,” he told the crowd. He advised them to sign a petition against the project, attend local and state meetings, and make their voices heard.
Council President Sidney Katz spoke out against the state taking anyone’s home or business for road widening.
Instead, he said, include reversible lanes during rush hour, add mass transit and build a monorail from Frederick to Shady Grove.
County Executive Marc Elrich called Hogan’s plan “a serious mistake, and to have not done the work before he hatched the plan is a real problem.”
Elrich added: “They never vetted it, that they never worked it out with the staff as they should have is just a huge boondoggle.”
“The power of the people to win is a real thing. We can actually win battles if we stand together,” Elrich said.
Councilman Will Jawando criticized the proposed toll lanes, noting that high tolls on the special lanes, which he called “Lexus luxury lanes,” are an equity issue in which wealthy people would be able to afford the high tolls and therefore arrive at their destinations on time while leaving more impoverished people stuck in traffic.
“This is a scam. It will not reduce congestion or gridlock,” he said. “It’s just a way for Larry Hogan to give your tax money to a handful of construction companies.”
“This is a challenge we face throughout the national capital region,” U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-4) said.
He criticized Hogan for trying to implement outdated solutions.
“Congestion has been around for a long time, but we are in a new century,” Brown said, adding that widening and adding traffic lanes has failed to relieve congestion in several places throughout the country.
There may be an easing of congestion “in three to five years, but in five years we will be right back to where we are today, and that is not acceptable,” Brown said.
He noted that 80 state and local officials recently signed a letter against the proposal Hogan has put forward.
Prince Georges’ County Councilmember Deni L. Taveras (D-2) called for “a true say” in the project.
“We don’t know the cost of these tolls. We don’t know the cost of the project,” she said. “This is taxpayer’s money. You can’t just be playing around with our livelihoods and our back pockets.”
Maryland Del. Julian Ivey (D-47A) agreed, stating, “We will not allow them to just go around us or just bulldoze through us. We will stand up.”
Maryland Sen. Susan Lee (D-16) also criticized the state proposal, noting it was prepared “without the input” of those most affected.
“We have to put our brakes on this,” she said, noting she was working with other state legislators to pass a bill that would demand the consent of the communities most affected before any large state project could be adopted.
During the meeting, about two dozen audience members spoke out against the project. Many of them belong to such organizations as Action Committee for Transit, Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, Coalition for Smarter Growth, Do the Most Good, Friends of Sligo Creek, Maryland Sierra Club, Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, Rock Creek Conservancy and Sligo Creek Golf Course.
“By design, this will lengthen the commute for those with less income and shorten it for those with more income,” said Zola Shaw from Our Revolution Montgomery County.