More than 450 residents and activists packed a room at the Silver Spring Civic Building on Sunday to condemn what they said has been a rush by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to move forward with his plan to build toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.
Many of the speakers at a town hall organized by Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said the governor has moved too quickly and ignored local leaders, planners and residents in determining how to best relieve traffic congestion in their communities.
“We feel completely unheard and unrepresented at the top levels of state government,” said Ann Horton, a Silver Spring resident and member of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion. “What we have now is not what democracy looks like.”
Dayo Akinsheye, a Silver Spring resident and member of Our Revolution Maryland, asked the crowd, “Why is the governor in such a rush to push this project forward against such a groundswell of opposition?”
Hucker, who chairs the county council’s transportation committee, said he initially called for the meeting last week to protest Hogan’s push for the Board of Public Works to vote on the proposal Wednesday. Hogan’s insistence drew criticism because the vote was scheduled even though the administration knew that one of the panel’s three members, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), would be out of the country. Kopp has said she has “serious questions” about the plan.
Hogan’s office announced Friday that he would postpone the vote until all three members would be present, but Hucker said he wanted to organize opponents to fight, or at least try to slow down, the highway expansion plan. He urged the audience to ask Kopp and another board member, Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), to oppose the plan. Hogan is the third member of the board.
“Don’t be fooled,” Hucker told the crowd Sunday, when some held signs saying “Trains not lanes.”
“This is a temporary reprieve,” Hucker said. “We have to keep organizing to win. . . . We are the experts on congestion in Montgomery County, not the people in Hanover, Maryland, with the Maryland Department of Transportation.”
Hogan did not accept an invitation to attend the event, Hucker said. Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the governor’s office did not receive an invitation. He said the office “monitored” the meeting, but he declined to say how.
The governor’s office tweeted during the two-hour event, in part: “While these activists plot to keep the roads filled with traffic, our relief plans have received broad support, advancing through public hearings, workshops, meetings & votes.”
Another tweet added: “These anti-congestion-relief activists show no regard for the hundreds of thousands of you who are stuck in soul-crushing traffic every day; even more, they offer no real ideas to solve a public health, environmental & safety crisis that is hurting quality of life in the region.”
Hucker countered that Montgomery leaders have asked for more targeted highway improvements for years, particularly to relieve choke points at the American Legion Bridge and on I-270, where it narrows north of Interstate 370.
The meeting showcased the first significant public opposition to Hogan’s plan since the State Highway Administration released maps last month as part of an ongoing environmental impact study. The maps show that up to 34 homes and four businesses could be destroyed and parts of nearly 1,500 backyards and other properties could be affected.
The crowd groaned when speakers recalled how Hogan, while campaigning for reelection in September, had said in a videotaped exchange with a highway opponent, “Not a single house is ever going to be taken down.”
They gasped when an official from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission said adding toll lanes would require taking up to 300 acres of parkland, compared with the 84 acres needed to build the Intercounty Connector.
Many speakers said the state had given short shrift to the idea of relieving traffic by expanding mass transit, such as by running MARC commuter trains all day.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said local officials could refuse to provide parkland for highway widening. Park and Planning officials have said they believe the state’s legal powers of eminent domain don’t extend to publicly owned land.
“We’re asking Park and Planning to not hand over any parkland,” Elrich said. “That would be one way to put a major plug in this project.”
Hogan has proposed adding up to four toll lanes to each highway. He has said it would be the largest public-private partnership in the United States, with teams of companies competing to design, build and operate the lanes in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue. He also has said the project would cost the state nothing.
The Board of Public Works vote, which is now expected to be held in June, will determine whether the state may begin pursuing proposals from the private sector.