This story was updated at 3 p.m. March 10, 2023, to add comments from Montgomery County Council President Evan Glass.
This story was updated at 11:55 a.m. March 10, 2023, to add more comments.
Montgomery County and Maryland officials called urgently for solutions but expressed mixed reactions to the announcement that toll road operating company Transurban had withdrawn its proposal to expand the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Maryland, leaving the project up in the air for now.
The Australian company said it was backing out due to uncertainty that Gov. Wes Moore (D) would support the initial proposal created by former Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and because of multiple unresolved lawsuits over environmental implications, The Washington Post first reported Thursday. Hogan’s $6 billion plan was announced in 2017.
The decision will pause replacement of the American Legion Bridge as well as the addition of high-occupancy toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270.
Del. Marc Korman (D-Dist. 16), majority leader in the House of Delegates—and an opponent of the toll lanes project—said in an interview with MoCo360 that Transurban’s decision shows that the company “obviously could not deliver the project they’ve been overpromising on.”
Moore and his administration are “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to how to address traffic on the Capital Beltway and I-270 corridor, Korman said. Increased MARC service through Montgomery County up to Frederick and beyond, bus rapid transit or increased bus service over the American Legion Bridge and along the Beltway, and other options are on the table, he said.
Transurban’s withdrawal “has no bearing on [promised federal funding] or the state’s commitment to addressing congestion issues affecting the region,” Moore said in a written statement provided to MoCo360.
“Because AM Partners executed its contractual right to not proceed, MDOT does not owe any payment to AM Partners. The state remains committed to continuing progress and will move forward in a manner that ensures social equity, environmental protection, and engagement with local partners while always acting in the best interest of taxpayers,” the statement said.
Moore has voiced criticism of Hogan’s plan in the past, primarily taking issue with potential effects on the environment and for not considering equity issues.
“MDOT is committed to delivering a new American Legion Bridge and transportation solutions that relieve traffic congestion throughout this corridor and promote equity and environmental protection. I look forward to connecting with the community and all stakeholders to understand their priorities firsthand to deliver solutions that advance the entire National Capital Region,” State Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said in a written statement provided by the Governor’s Office.
County Councilmember Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 2), whose district includes Germantown, Clarksburg, Poolesville, and much of the upcounty, called Thursday’s news “frustrating” in an interview.
For years, residents upcounty have been calling for solutions to address congestion on I-270, especially as more residential units were added since she moved to Germantown 28 years ago, Balcombe said. Transit options have not kept up with that growth, she said.
“We have been screaming from the top of the hills, and no one listens to us,” Balcombe said.
The issue is there aren’t enough sensible transit options for upcounty residents, she said. It’s not just commuting down to Washington, D.C., either, she said. She had a meeting Friday morning in Clarksburg. By car, it’s about 17 minutes, she said—but via transit, it’s an hour and eight minutes.
“It’s not a matter of choice; it’s a matter of viability,” she said.
Korman cautioned all those interested in the issue to be realistic when it comes to solving traffic in the corridor.
“We can talk about improving traffic and congestion, but solving it is a fantasy, and we should be honest about that,” Korman said.
Still, Balcombe was blunt when it comes to what lies ahead in the coming months: “We need to talk to the governor’s office and ask what their solution is. But I tell you what—it’s not going to be a bus.”
County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview that Thursday’s news lets county and state officials “go forward in a more constructive way” when addressing congestion on I-270, the American Legion Bridge and the Capital Beltway.
Elrich has mentioned reversible lanes multiple times as a potential solution to congestion. He said that Thursday’s news is not a sign that any potential project needs to start from scratch.
“We’re not back to square one, you already have a lot of research done, [and] you have more plans that are on the table that can be evaluated … I don’t think it should take anywhere as long as it’s taken this [toll lanes] project to get to this point,” Elrich said. “There were unresolved issues with this [project], it’s not like this construction was going to start tomorrow if they hadn’t pulled out.”
But Paula Ross, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, called Thursday’s news “disappointing.” Ross said that communities in the upcounty are going to remain car-centric until there is more transit infrastructure.
“It’s very difficult to use transit for your day-to-day needs in the upcounty,” Ross said.
She added that she isn’t against more transit options, but that road expansion needs to be part of the solution.
“To alleviate the traffic problem that permeates the upcounty region, we do need a mix of solutions, and one of those solutions is expanding roadways, and I-270 … we do need transit, but it needs to fit within a larger plan with roadway [expansion] as well,” Ross said.
Thursday’s announcement, a decision that favors those opposed to Gov. Hogan’s toll lanes project, marks an important point in the overall debate of how traffic should be addressed along the I-270 corridor, Capital Beltway, and American Legion Bridge.
Elrich, however, said more work remains until those that opposed the project can be satisfied.
“By and large, defeating something in and of itself is not itself a victory, the goal here was to get to a good solution,” Elrich said. “If we get a good solution out of this, I will be very happy … right now, we’ve got a better opportunity to come up with a better project, and if we do that, then it will be a victory.”
County Council President Evan Glass said while the county government and specifically the County Council have a “very limited role” in the I-270 project, he is hopeful the Moore administration will work with the county moving forward.
“We need to fix the American Legion Bridge. We need to ease traffic congestion, but we also need to invest more in public transportation and alternative transportation solutions that were not part of Governor Hogan’s proposal,” Glass said. “So I’m confident that Governor Moore will engage in this process in a more collaborative way, working with Montgomery County and Prince George’s County to really solve our regional transportation problems.”