ROCKVILLE — Local community officials and members of the public attended the fifth Managed Lanes Study workshop in large numbers to learn more about possible widening of interstates in the area.
The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) are in the process of looking for viable solutions to relieve traffic congestion on Interstates 270 and 495.
According to the MDOT, current traffic congestion is considered severe, with heavy traffic flow for seven to 10 hours each day on the two interstates in question. Officials expect this congestion to worsen as population in the area continues to grow. They explain, on the project’s website, that many sections along I-495 and 270 experience speeds at or below 15 miles per hour under current traffic conditions.
The MDOT and SHA are currently studying seven possible solutions to fix the problem, including widening the interstates and adding toll lanes.
But the widening project is being met with considerable pushback from the community and local government officials. Many community members say they will feel the impact of the project, no matter which widening solution state officials eventually pick.
Widening the two interstates will force the removal of homes and businesses in its path. According to the study, depending on which widening option officials pick, it’s possible that 25 to 34 homes may need to be relocated along 495, and up to 708 properties could be affected by the project. Some properties may not be affected as greatly as others during the widening plan.
Rockville City Mayor Bridget Newton and County Councilmembers Tom Hucker and Sidney Katz, among other local government officials, attended the April 25 public workshop to voice their concerns over the project.
“This has felt like a fait acompli from the very beginning,” said Newton. She explained that officials from the project had promised her office that no homes would be taken in the process of the widening project, but that promise has not been kept. “People are hurting,” she said.
Hucker has also voiced his disappointment in the widening project. In the past few months, he and his fellow constituents have voiced their concern directly to officials involved in the research for the project during county council meetings.
“This is obviously disappointing,” he said after the workshop presentation. “You know this is Montgomery County and people are going to ask smart questions. (The officials) didn’t really say anything; they just showed us their Power Point and said this is what it is.”
One concern seemed universal for the community members who attended the workshop – the transparency of the project.
“The process has not been transparent or inclusive from the very beginning,” said Olivia Bartlett, a community member from Bethesda. “It’s being presented pretty much like, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ If you look at the information boards, they really are pushing (widening.) They have lots of negatives for all the alternatives except for adding two toll lanes in each direction to both roads, which is the most invasive alternative.”
The scheduling of the project’s phases also didn’t sit well with some of the attendees. Kay and Glen Drew noted that it would make more sense to address areas of the interstates that create bottlenecks further north toward Frederick where lanes merge, before dealing with the down county.
“Planning to do the southern part first is frankly stupid,” said Kay Drew.
Lisa Choplin, who serves as director of the I-495 and I-270 P3 Office, explained during the workshop’s question-and-answer period that the project is phased this way so that revenues collected from the southern portion, through the addition of toll lanes, will help pay for work on the northern portion.
When Newton raised a similar request to begin the project on the northern part of the interstate, Choplin explained that the program is complex and that an environmental study has not been initiated yet for the area.
Hucker explained why he is opposed to the project.
“They’re not working with local officials or engaging with local transportation officials,” he said. “We’ve been asking for congestion relief for years, and they’ve just kind of cobbled together this proposal — and they’re not taking or acting on the public’s input.”
Katz said that a problem like this one is an opportunity to get legislation on the books that would mandate state officials to listen to local representatives.
“We should get legislation through that says you have to listen to the local county,” he said. “We need to work together and come up with solutions that will not do anything beyond the existing law.”
Three more workshops are scheduled around the county and public hearings on the widening project are set to begin early in 2020, according to MDOT and FHA.
“I imagine there will be lawsuits (over this project),” Hucker said. “It’s a misuse of the P3 program. It’s being used for a project that the county executive, the county council and the delegation doesn’t (don’t) support.”