Maryland Gov. Wes Moore on Monday said the state will pursue publicly funding a multibillion-dollar project to relieve Beltway congestion, breaking off from his predecessor’s $6 billion plan for a public-private partnership.
The Maryland Department of Transportation has applied for a $2.4 billion federal grant that officials said would help the state realize long-sought improvements at one of the biggest traffic choke points in the Washington region by 2031.
Moore’s plan would rebuild the American Legion Bridge and add managed lanes — such as high-occupancy toll lanes — to parts of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, targeting crippling highway congestion at the Virginia state line and in the Maryland suburbs with a focus on transit and more community input, officials said.
It was the administration’s first public accounting of how it planned to move forward after the state’s private partner withdrew in March, citing uncertainty. The approach addresses the pressure to fix the 60-year-old bridge, a major Beltway choke point that Maryland officials have said must be replaced before it becomes structurally unsafe. North of the span, the plan envisions “multimodal enhancements” to potentially include more commuter train service, express buses and biking options along the traffic-choked corridors.
“The transportation network throughout Maryland and the National Capital Region must be able to get people where they need to go in a timely and reliable manner,” Moore said in a statement, adding that his approach would provide “long-desired, equitable transportation” that would stimulate the economy and link people to jobs.
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The announcement is a final blow to long-embattled plans proposed by Maryland’s previous governor, Larry Hogan (R). Hogan had pitched a public-private partnership, or P3, as a way to relieve notorious bottlenecks without a direct cost to taxpayers.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld said the administration is not completely abandoning the possibility of partnering with the private sector as the project moves forward, but is focused now on exploring avenues for public financing.
The plan Hogan proposed in 2017 was modeled on Northern Virginia’s system, aiming to add four toll lanes — two in each direction — to the length of I-270 and Maryland’s portion of the Capital Beltway. The plan shrank amid opposition in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where officials say toll lanes would primarily benefit the wealthy and harm the environment.
The state spent at least $200 million on the preliminary work and environmental approval for the plan. Maryland transportation officials said that work will advance initial implementation of managed lanes at the bridge and through the I-270 spur. The state also plans to spend another $500,000 to buy the work done by the private consortium picked in 2021 to design, build and operate the toll-lanes.
The private team, led by Australian toll company Transurban, cited uncertainty about lawsuits over the project’s environmental implications and the political climate as it quit this spring. Transurban operates more than 60 miles of express lanes in Northern Virginia, including just south of the American Legion Bridge.
Moore (D) had criticized the project for not being designed with more transit or equity for underserved communities. Maryland transportation officials said besides highway improvements, the new plan would also advance transit options, with consideration for express buses and incentives for carpooling. The administration will reconsider earlier plans for bus rapid transit and push for expanded commuter train service on MARC’s Brunswick Line, which connects West Virginia to the District via the I-270 corridor.
“We’re thinking of this as a true multimodal corridor,” Wiedefeld said. “So when we’re thinking about managed lanes, I’m thinking from a perspective of the transit rider and how do we move people by transit along this corridor.”
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He said he expects some version of managed lanes, which could be compatible with Virginia’s Express Lanes, would be key to expand capacity, ensure transit traveling in the corridor is reliable and provide a potential source for revenue to support the infrastructure. The inclusion of toll lanes were a key source of opposition to Hogan’s traffic relief plan. Critics said people with higher incomes would be in the fast lanes, while poor people would be stuck in the free lanes. Opponents also said wider highways would destroy parkland, harm adjacent neighborhoods and give short shrift to mass transit.
“You try to reach as much consensus as you can, but obviously there will always be interests that don’t agree with the path forward,” said Wiedefeld.
A coalition of advocates who want to expand transit and prioritize equity and environmental justice voiced disappointment that the Moore administration was moving forward with plans that would expand highway lanes and incorporate tolls. They said a number of alternatives to toll roads — such as bus rapid transit, reversible lanes during rush hour, incentives for telework and flexible work hours, or converting a lane for bus, van pools and HOV vehicles — could provide the congestion relief sought by a lane expansion.
“Governor Moore should be investing in public transportation, not furthering our dependence on cars,” Jamie Demarco, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a statement.
But not everyone believes that the region’s transportation woes can be solved without expanding roadways amid increasing congestion on and around the Beltway. Express lanes are a proven method to relieve congestion and also create more revenue to support transit initiatives, said Jonathan Gifford, a professor and director of the Center for Transportation Public-Private Partnership Policy at George Mason University.
“The reality is that transit will at best solve a small part of the problem,” Gifford said. “If the governor and local officials want to relieve congestion, they will have to face up to the need to expand the number of lanes available to accommodate existing and future demand.”
Terry Clower, who runs the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said it is a positive sign that the Moore administration is identifying new sources of funding, but he expects it to take years for the proposals to become reality and relieve congestion in the region. The necessary fixes will be delayed even if federal funding comes through without a hitch, he said, and local objections to expanding roadways and implementing tolls could continue to slow progress.
“We’re in for a long battle, I think,” he said. “In the meantime, we will have a longer period of time of higher traffic congestion and the economic cost and the quality-of-life harm created by that traffic congestion.”
Like Hogan, Moore is also proposing to build the managed toll lanes in phases, with the first section connecting to Virginia’s 495 Express Lanes at the American Legion Bridge and continuing on the Beltway to the I-270 west spur. Moore’s first segment, however, would end at the 270 spur. A second phase would include I-270 to Interstate 370. This phasing will also allow for a “fiscally prudent” development of the project, officials said.
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An average of 240,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily. Most of the bridge — like the Potomac River beneath it — belongs to Maryland. In addition to creating a choke point that backs up traffic at both ends, the bridge has no shoulders, and crashes on the span can create significant backups.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), a vocal critic of Hogan’s plan, said the Moore administration is starting in the right place by focusing first on the American Legion Bridge.
“The bridge is the current choke point, and it made no sense to start elsewhere,” he said in a statement Monday afternoon. The county executive also said Moore’s focus on transit solutions was a “distinct, key difference” from the Hogan administration’s approach.
Elrich acknowledged that many community members will have concerns about the environmental and social impacts of the governor’s plan, especially because of the intent to implement tolls.
“While I understand their trepidation, I am heartened by the Moore Administration and MDOT acknowledgement that engaging with the communities is fundamental to the success of this project, and based on conversations thus far, I am optimistic that this project can be done without the impacts that people are concerned about,” Elrich added.
Maryland officials said the grant request to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday makes the case that the funding would support the expansion of the bridge, as well as the addition of frequent bus transit between Virginia and Montgomery County. Plans also call for a shared-use path across the Potomac River on the new bridge span to connect Maryland and Virginia trail networks.
Maryland says it would contribute $800 million in matching state funds and another $800 million in other federal funds as through other grant programs, for a total projected investment of $4 billion.
Maryland will soon launch an environmental study to identify transportation needs of the I-270 corridor, north of the Intercounty Connector/MD 200, officials said.
The Transportation Department will hold open houses in Montgomery and Frederick counties this fall and winter to give residents and local officials a chance to weigh in.
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