Like the hammer that sees everything as a nail, if you are wedded to building roads, every right of way will seem a little sad until it’s covered in asphalt and painted with lane stripes.
So it seemed with the Maryland State Highway Administration officials I saw a few weeks ago at a meeting in a Silver Spring church basement.
The meeting at Christ Congregational Church was organized by CABE: Citizens Against Beltway Expansion. You know where things stand with a name like that. It’s not CSOTFABE (Citizens Still On the Fence About Beltway Expansion) or CKAOMAATLTTB (Citizens Keeping an Open Mind About Adding Toll Lanes to the Beltway).
No, these were residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who oppose Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to add four lanes of high-occupancy toll lanes to I-270 and Maryland’s portion of the Capital Beltway.
It was to SHA Administrator Greg Slater’s credit that he attended the meeting, knowing it was going to be a tough crowd. He probably would have preferred being with the guys from BOABB: Bring On a Bigger Beltway.
The SHA people had brought their charts and maps and PowerPoints. It had only recently been announced that 34 homes and four businesses would probably need to be demolished to make way for the toll lanes and that 1,500 other houses could be affected by construction.
This, of course, was very different from Hogan’s earliest assurances that not a single brick or shingle would be touched, something that from the start seemed laughable and disingenuous. His remarks struck me as what fans of certain Latin American novels call “magical realism.” It’s certainly magical thinking.
There was more magical thinking in the church basement. Slater explained that 34 homes was the highest number that might get torn down. But the SHA wasn’t going to tell bidders they had to tear down houses — quite the opposite, in fact.
“We don’t want to give the private sector a fully baked cake,” he said.
Bidders on the project would be “incentivized” to save as many houses as they could, Slater said.
I tried to imagine what sort of incentive would move a construction company that had just been awarded a $9 billion to $11 billion contract to save 34 measly homes. (They certainly wouldn’t be getting a slice of fully baked cake.)
The word “cantilevered” was bandied about. Perhaps that’s what the winning bidder would do: build nifty cantilevered lanes, one atop the other. How about adding some flying buttresses while you’re at it?
If this thing goes through and those 34 homes are still standing and there are cantilevered lanes or other creative “solutions,” I will eat my hat.
Like an overloaded 18-wheeler on a 7 percent downhill grade, it sure seems like this thing is going through, doesn’t it? From the minute this was a glint in Hogan’s eye, the momentum has been headed in one direction. Transit options were stripped from the choices. Hogan said no houses would be harmed, then that 34 houses would be harmed — maybe. The online map showing the borders of possible construction was hard for residents to decipher.
A lot of carts have been put ahead of a lot of horses.
“I think the process is being stage-managed to a predetermined outcome,” said CABE’s Brad German.
In the church basement, resident after resident lined up at a microphone to express their concerns. Even those whose houses aren’t on the proposed chopping block noted their homes were within the “limit of disturbance,” whatever that meant. One woman worried storm water would flood her house, given the extensive landscaping the project would require.
Mainly, though, attendees wondered why acres of privately built, for-profit pavement was the best the governor could offer.
“There’s no reason to think ‘cars, cars and cars’ for all the solutions,” one resident said.
For those who want to learn more about the project, there’s a town hall from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at the Silver Spring Civic Building, hosted by Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker. More meetings are listed on the state’s website: 495-270-p3.com. Citizens can write to the three members of the state Board of Public Works: Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
And there’s information at CABE’s website: cabe495.com.
Before the meeting ended, someone said, “I feel like it’s being shoved down our throats.”
It doesn’t have to be.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.