Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recently won a key vote for his traffic relief plan for the Washington suburbs by proposing to start with new toll lanes on Interstate 270 in Montgomery County. Expanding I-270, he said, would be less controversial than his initial plan to first widen the Capital Beltway and its most crippling chokepoint at the American Legion Bridge.

The Beltway and bridge had the worst traffic congestion, Hogan (R) said, but “more people wanted to do 270.”

Reordering the highway expansion project in June gave Hogan a big political win, securing support from Comptroller Peter Franchot (D). Franchot provided the second vote Hogan needed on the state’s three-member Board of Public Works to move the plan forward over the objections of political leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

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But since that approval, even advocates for the overall plan have begun to voice concerns that widening I-270 first, while politically expedient for the governor, will not alleviate traffic — and will probably make it worse.

Widening I-270 without first widening the Beltway and expanding the bridge will dump more vehicles into the Beltway’s same smaller funnel, adding to the notorious backups on both highways, traffic watchers say.

“Yes, you’re going to make it worse,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which supported Hogan’s initial toll lane plan.

Townsend said it was “politically practical” to start with the least controversial segment. Even so, he said, when he heard about the change to widen I-270 before the Beltway and bridge, “I said, ‘Oh, my God, they’ll rue the day that that scenario ever unfolds.’ ”

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Additionally, many say the state’s plan to focus first on the lower section of I-270, between the Beltway and Interstate 370, would not fix the highway’s worst northbound chokepoint where traffic grinds to a halt as six lanes narrow down to two. State officials have said the lower section would be more lucrative for the companies that will build the lanes and collect the tolls.

Toll lane supporters say putting off the bridge expansion also delays an opportunity to begin creating a regional toll lane network by extending the toll lanes on Virginia’s portion of the Beltway across the bridge and into Maryland.

State Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who represents the upcounty and supports adding toll lanes to I-270, said she hears from exasperated motorists that the state’s plan makes no sense.

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“They might not have thought it through,” King said of Hogan and state transportation officials. “They might have thought widening 270 would solve the problem, but if you don’t fix the American Legion Bridge and the spur [at the Beltway], people will always be stuck there.”

Plan complications

Hogan spokesman Michael ­Ricci declined to respond to questions about the potential traffic impacts of widening I-270 first. He referred to Hogan’s comments during the June Board of Public Works meeting in which the governor said starting with I-270 would allow another couple of years for the “hundreds of thousands of commuters who sit in that [Beltway] traffic to convince their local leaders that they desperately want” relief.

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Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, referred all questions to the governor’s office.

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Hogan’s plan, which is undergoing a federally required environmental review, would add up to four toll lanes to both I-270 and the Capital Beltway. Tolls would fluctuate with traffic to keep the lanes flowing. The existing lanes, which also would be rebuilt, would remain free.

Whether the plan makes traffic better or worse, even temporarily, could determine whether any new lanes are built. The project would be done via public-private partnerships in which teams of companies would build and finance the lanes’ construction in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue long-term. The overall construction is valued at more than $11 billion.

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However, experts say the consortia could have trouble securing financing if the toll profits become less certain, such as if investors believe fewer motorists would pay tolls to avoid traffic only to hit another backup.

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The potential impacts of Maryland’s change are already complicating congestion relief efforts in Northern Virginia.

Seven months after Hogan released his initial proposal in 2017, the Virginia Department of Transportation announced a plan to extend its Beltway toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge. Those efforts, Virginia officials noted, would be “closely coordinated and compatible with” Maryland’s plan to widen its part of the Beltway and the bridge, which Maryland owns.

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But without a wider bridge, Virginia will end up moving its bottleneck three miles closer to the Maryland line, said Susan Shaw, VDOT’s megaprojects director.

Shaw said VDOT still plans to extend its toll lanes, but it has begun analyzing how a delay in the bridge’s widening would affect traffic on the Virginia side of the Beltway.

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“Of course, it’s preferable to us to have Maryland attack the American Legion Bridge as soon as it practically can, because it’s the most congested interstate segment in the Washington region,” Shaw said.

Optimal phasing

Public officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s had primarily objected to widening the Beltway east of I-270, where the right of way is the most narrow and a state study found that up to 34 homes and parts of hundreds of backyards might have to be condemned. Local opponents said the plan also didn’t do enough to expand transit and would destroy environmentally sensitive parkland.

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However, Montgomery leaders also had said that both I-270 and the western part of the Beltway had more room to add lanes without taking homes.

“We were pleased when [the state] began looking at doing I-270 first,” said Chris Conklin, deputy director of Montgomery’s transportation department. “But we were very surprised they hadn’t included the section [of the Beltway] to the American Legion Bridge. It had never been a thought that they’d leave that piece out.”

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Franchot’s office declined to answer questions about his vote. A spokeswoman referred questions about the potential traffic effects of the I-270 decision to state transportation planners.

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State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), the third member of the Board of Public Works, voted against the project after asking Hogan why the bridge and western Beltway would not be part of the first phase. Hogan said breaking up the Beltway segments between the bridge and Interstate 95 “would require going back and reinventing the process,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“I wasn’t as concerned about controversy as I was about whether it made sense for improving traffic,” Kopp said in an interview. “I just don’t see how they see it working out on the ground.”

Kopp, who is elected by the General Assembly, said her office has since asked Maryland transportation officials to clarify how widening I-270 first will not worsen backups at the Beltway, but she hasn’t received any answers.

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“They say ‘We’re still working on it,’ ” Kopp said.

Some supporters of Hogan’s plan say the order of the highway expansion is less important than getting at least part of it underway.

“Whatever we can do to get the project started should be done,” said Emmet Tydings, whose group, Citizens For Traffic Relief, backs the toll project. “I don’t think [expanding lower I-270 first] is optimal phasing, but we say don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. My hope would be that phasing will change somehow.”

Bob Buchanan, a commercial real estate developer and president of the 2030 Group, a regional business organization that supports the overall toll lane plan, said he commends Hogan for trying to provide “desperately needed” infrastructure improvements. However, he said, state and local leaders need to negotiate the most efficient way to stage construction to help motorists.

“Whatever issues need to be decided on the Beltway, let’s do that now because we need to do both [the Beltway and I-270] at the same time,” Buchanan said. “Let’s get the right people to the table, make decisions and move because it doesn’t help Maryland to keep having discussions while traffic isn’t moving. People have no confidence this is going to get resolved.”