Environmental groups are protesting Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen the American Legion Bridge as the state’s Board of Public Works prepares to take a crucial vote on the proposal.
The board will meet Wednesday to vote on amendments to the governor’s lane-widening project, originally limited to Interstate 270 after an earlier vote.
In June, the board agreed to allow the Hogan administration to solicit private companies to build and operate toll lanes on I-270 and the Capital Beltway — as long as the first phase of the project focused on adding lanes on I-270.
But in November, Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a plan to partner on adding toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge, a notorious choke point for traffic in the Capital Region. As part of the proposal, Hogan would reprioritize toll lanes along I-495, including the northeastern section of the Beltway that extends to I-95 in Prince George’s County.
That section of the plan has been widely criticized by Montgomery County officials, who argue it could impede on county and federally owned parkland surrounding the highway. After an unusually tense meeting with Maryland Department of Transportation officials in November, one local Planning Board member suggested suing the state over the expedited proposal.
At least three environmental groups — the Potomac Conservancy, the Rock Creek Conservancy and the Audubon Naturalist Society — oppose the plan. In a joint letter to Govs. Hogan and Northam, they argued that the proposal stemmed from a flawed process that didn’t follow the appropriate steps for a major public works project.
“They’re making announcements about projects long before any of the federally mandated studies are done,” said Lisa Alexander, the executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
Those include a National Environmental Policy Act review, which requires an environmental impact statement to assess the possible effects of the plan and whether it complies with federal law.
In the November meeting, Lisa Choplin, the director for the state’s public-private partnership program, said the draft impact statement for the toll project wouldn’t be available until the spring of 2020. Local officials have repeatedly asked for the state’s findings so far, but Choplin has said that releasing the information could compromise MDOT’s solicitations to private companies.
“They’re already talking about contracts, but we haven’t even begun to see what the results of these studies might be,” Alexander said. The entire lane-widening proposal “smacks of poor regional planning,” she added — from transportation and environmental perspectives.
“Just look at Los Angeles and Beijing,” she said. “Adding lanes has not alleviated congestion in any way, and it’s really impacted the air quality.”
All three groups are concerned about how the state plans handle stormwater runoff and mitigate the new lanes’ impact on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers — two crucial waterways for local flora and fauna.
Local residents use the rivers as a water source, which makes water quality especially important, Alexander said. The connecting stream valleys are also important habitats for migrating birds, butterflies, and a wide range of other species.
Like Montgomery County officials, she fears the project will be pushed through without appropriately assessing the environmental risks. The advocacy groups asked both governors not to rush the process until its environmental impacts are appropriately studied.
“We would welcome the chance to be part of finding a solution that is consistent with our shared desire to protect our water and lands,” the letter reads.