GREENBELT – Last month, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced an ambitious plan to widen several area highways. Now, locals are weighing in on the proposal.
Hogan held a press conference in Montgomery County on Sept. 21 to announce a $9 billion project to expand the Capital Beltway (I-495), I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD 295). The plan calls for four new lanes on 270, between I-495 and I-70, and on 495 between the American Legion Bridge and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. These lanes would be toll lanes built, financed, maintained and operated by a private-sector entity through a public-private partnership (P3). The scale of the project makes it the largest P3 in United States history, according to a release from the governor’s office.
“These three massive, unprecedented projects to widen I-495, I-270 and MD 295 will be absolutely transformative, and they will help Maryland citizens go about their daily lives in a more efficient and safer manner,” Hogan said. “Today, we are turning Maryland’s celebrated innovation into real action. These projects will substantially and dramatically improve our state highway system and traffic in the region.”
For MD 295, the Maryland Transportation Authority would be in charge of building and maintaining the toll lanes, as well as the existing lanes. But that plan is contingent on the U.S. Department of the Interior agreeing to the state’s request to transfer ownership of the parkway to Maryland from the National Park Service.
The Greenbelt City Council had a lively discussion about the proposal at its most recent meeting on Sept. 25. Chief among the city’s concerns was the MD 295 component of the plan, since the parkway runs through Greenbelt. Councilmembers raised concerns that widening the road would turn it from a parkway into an interstate, as well as destroy existing green space bordering the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Councilwoman Leta Mach said that widening MD 295 had already been considered in an earlier study and deemed not feasible.
“The study indicated that it would be very, very expensive to widen that road, it would be very impactful to the nearby neighbors, especially Greenbriar... when you finished all that, the traffic would be no better,” she said. “This is a very ridiculous idea.”
At the end of the discussion, the council voted 6-1 in support of Mach’s motion to send a letter to the National Park Service, the interior department, state and federal legislators and Hogan stating its opposition to the entire highway-widening proposal. The dissenting vote was Mayor Emmett Jordan, who said he didn’t feel a letter was the most effective way to advocate against the plan.
“Maybe we need to just think about it a little bit, see who the allies are, and move forward as opposed to just dashing off a letter, in terms of what's going to be most effective,” he said. “From a strategic standpoint, just shooting off a letter to everybody in the world, I don’t really think that gets things done.”
The rest of the council felt the letter was a necessary first step, but agreed with Jordan that further conversations and coalitions were needed. Mayor Pro Tem Judith Davis suggested the focus of that effort should be on preventing the land transfer that would enable Hogan to add the lanes on MD 295.
“What bothers me more than anything else is the governor wishes to ask the federal government to transfer the land out of National Park Service and give it to Maryland, and with the present administration and the present person in charge of the Department of the Interior (Secretary Ryan Zinke), this is very likely to happen,” she said. “(But) if he can’t get the transfer, he can’t get the widening.”
Councilman Rodney Roberts pointed out the I-495 widening jeopardizes another city priority: a new interchange from I-495 to the Greenbelt Metro station. The state had pledged money for the project in conjunction with its bid for the FBI headquarters, but the item was removed from the fiscal year 2019 capital projects list proposed by the governor.
“The interchange, I think that’s a dead duck unless we can kill the Beltway widening project because they’re not going to get into a project like that when they’re going to come and wipe it out with new lanes on the Beltway,” Roberts argued.
Not everyone in the room agreed with the council’s reasoning. Resident Bob Schneider said he supports the governor’s plan because traffic congestion is a major problem in the region, one which continues to grow.
“I hear people say they want development, we want immigration and we want more people coming in. We’ve got more people around. And I would rather see lanes added to an existing freeway or a parkway than to have a whole new ICC or parkway built,” he said. “I cross over the parkway on Greenbelt Road and I always feel sorry for people when it’s not moving at all.”
Davis argued that the money for the widening could instead be put toward enhancing public transit and bike lanes, which will do more to help traffic by removing cars from the roadways. And Roberts said it isn’t just traffic concerns that motivate him to want fewer cars.
“That (reliance on cars) is a major factor in the whole process of global warming, not just the fact that we’re driving millions of cars down the highway, but the manufacturing and the mining and the destruction of the natural habitat for other species, all that revolves around our use of the automobile,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s real and it’s going on.”