A map of the areas impacted by the current proposed road widening/toll lanes project, shown in dark blue. Previously, all of the light blue was also included. Credit: Maryland Department of Transportation

This story was updated at 12:50 p.m., Aug. 5, 2022, to include comments from Gov. Larry Hogan and the Federal Highway Administration. It was updated at 3 p.m. to include more comments and at 4:30 p.m. to include more details and comments. 

Gov. Larry Hogan is urging President Joe Biden, Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Federal Highway Administration to reverse a decision to delay a project to widen parts of I-270 and I-495, along with replacing the American Legion Bridge.

On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration was set to potentially approve a Environmental Impact Statement for the project, which Hogan has helped spearhead in an attempt to reduce congestion on I-270 and the Capital Beltway. Multiple local organizations, led by the Sierra Club, were protesting that deadline, saying the public needed more time to review the statement, which was well over 26,000 pages long.

In a lengthy statement Friday morning, Hogan said his administration has “learned that the acting federal highway administrator plans to further delay Maryland’s transformative Traffic Relief Plan. We were completely blindsided by this action, particularly given that every comprehensive analysis we submitted had already been reviewed and approved by the agency.”

Hogan blasted the federal government’s decision, and said some Montgomery County politicians were pandering to “a small minority of pro-traffic activists.”

“If action is not taken to immediately rectify this improper decision, we are prepared to use every tool at our disposal — up to and including legal action. While we do not want it to come to that, these reckless and apparently politically-motivated actions may leave us with no other choice,” Hogan said in the statement.

In recent weeks, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, along with Casey Anderson, chair of the county’s Planning Board and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, had sent letters to the Department of Transportation, urging them to allow more time for review of the Environmental Impact Statement, according to reports by Maryland Matters

In an interview at the Glen Echo Fire Department on Friday, Hogan said the Federal Highway Administration’s decision was made by Stephanie Pollack, the acting administrator for the agency. He called her decision “a parting shot on her way out of the door,” as her position will not be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Pollack has been serving as acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration since July 21, according to the agency’s website. Last month, President Biden announced he has selected Shailen P. Bhatt to lead the administration, pending Senate confirmation.

Hogan dismissed concerns from local opponents that the project has not gone a thorough environmental review, and said his administration has already compromised enough with state and local leaders – noting the current footprint of the project is about 20% of the original proposal.

Hogan said his administration would be filing a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration if the agency doesn’t reverse course. He said any further delays and a lawsuit could cost Maryland taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We’re hoping [the Federal Highway Administration] are going to change their mind and reverse it immediately, hopefully by the end of today, if possible,” Hogan said. “If it doesn’t get done in the next couple of days, we’re going to file suit, because the taxpayers cannot afford potentially up to a billion dollars in delays.”

The environmental impact statement was released to the public in June. In order for the state to receive federal funding for the project, the statement must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration. 

“The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is continuing to work with the Maryland Department of Transportation on the I-495/I-270 Managed Lanes Study,” a FHWA spokesperson wrote in an email. “There have been strong feelings about this project and it is FHWA’s responsibility not to pick a side, but to ensure that the NEPA process is followed with integrity. This includes completing a thorough review of comments received to ensure public feedback is adequately addressed as we work toward finalizing a Record of Decision for this project.”

The project was first unveiled by Hogan in late 2017, utilizing a so-called “P3” – public-private partnership – in which the lanes would be designed, built, operated and maintained by a private firm with revenue derived from two tolls lanes in both directions. Originally, it was to include all of I-495 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as I-270. But the Maryland Department of Transportation announced last year that the first phase of the project has been narrowed to include the American Legion Bridge, the westernmost section of I-495 leading to I-270, and north on I-270 to I-370 – at a cost estimated to be $3.75 billion to $4.25 billion.

Elrich, along with some Montgomery County Council members and local elected officials, have been critical of the project, saying it will not lead to the traffic relief touted by the Hogan administration. 

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Elrich, said the county executive’s office has not been contacted by the Federal Highway Administration about its decision, but added in an email: “While we have not received any communication or correspondence from the US Department of Transportation on this issue, this would align with the County Executive’s request that he has made to the Department. However, it would be premature to speculate on potential decisions until officially notified.”

Opponents of the project blamed Hogan for trying to cut corners during the overall federal government review of the project. That included the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter.

“It’s disappointing Governor Hogan is again resorting to blaming and name calling when this outcome is the logical result of his administration’s repeated efforts to cut corners for a flawed plan,” Tulkin wrote in a statement. “The fundamental flaws built into this harmful project are finally catching up to it.”

The project has been a controversial one in Montgomery County, where many residents, elected officials and political leaders upcounty support it, while those downcounty are against it. It also was the basis for an interesting sequence of events in local and regional politics because of crucial votes at the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, which includes representatives of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

In June 2021, that board voted against including Hogan’s toll lanes project as part of a larger group of projects to undergo an “Air Quality Conformity Analysis,” something that is needed in order for projects to be considered for federal funding. Hogan’s administration then led an ad campaign and lobbied some representatives on the transportation planning board to flip their vote – and in July 2021, the board reversed course, approving the project for the air quality analysis.

Between these two votes, County Council Member Hans Riemer said he brokered a deal with Greg Slater, then the Maryland transportation secretary. In exchange for getting five out of nine council members to sign on to the project – and thus having the council vote yes during the July 2021 vote by transportation planning board – the developer of the I-270/I-495 widening project would provide a minimum of $145 million for transit projects, including the Corridor Cities Transitway upcounty and creating a bus rapid transit route along Md. 355, a letter from Slater said.

Riemer, along with Council Members Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice, signed a letter in support. Council Members Evan Glass, Will Jawando, Tom Hucker and Sidney Katz did not. 

Riemer could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. Hucker, a long-time opponent of the project, said he wasn’t surprised by the news that the Federal Highway Administration had delayed its decision.

Over a year ago, Hucker said, he attended a meeting with U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D) and Buttigieg about the project and transportation needs. He noted that federal transportation officials had concerns about the project’s environmental review process.

“They were aware that the Hogan administration has essentially cut corners, and been somewhat fast and loose with the federal requirements in order to get this project approved before the end of [his] administration,” Hucker said in an interview. Hogan leaves office in January.

Hucker added that the project does not meet climate and equity standards that have been established during Biden’s term in office. 

When asked about the potential lawsuit from the Hogan administration, Hucker said: “I’ll leave it to the attorneys about whether the state has a case at all.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com.

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com