Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to add four toll lanes to Interstates 495 and 270 would cut the time motorists sit in traffic by up to 35 percent, but it would require up to 34 homes and four businesses along the Capital Beltway be demolished, a new state study found.
No homes or businesses would need to be taken along I-270, according to the study findings released Thursday.
However, up to nearly 1,500 properties along both highways would be “directly affected,” meaning they would lose parts of backyards or other land, either permanently or temporarily during construction. Some of the properties also could end up with a closer noise wall, a state official said.
People in nearly 4,600 homes, businesses, schools and other sites could hear more noise, although how much won’t be known until further analysis is completed.
The study findings, presented at the first public workshop on the toll plan, provided an initial glimpse of how much the highways would need to be widened under seven traffic relief scenarios under consideration — six of which involve adding two to four toll lanes.
By comparison, the Purple Line required 172 homes and businesses to be demolished.
Maryland State Highway Administrator Greg Slater cautioned that the findings are “very preliminary” and show the worst-case scenarios. He said the companies that will design the lanes as part of a public-private partnership are expected to find ways to further reduce any widening, perhaps by tunneling or cantilevering some lanes over others.
“We know a number of folks out there are really frustrated with congestion,” Slater said, “but we also don’t want a solution that’s really going to disrupt the lives of communities around the Beltway. They’re really important to us.”
The more than 500,000 motorists who use both highways daily but don’t live or work near them would see significant improvement, the study found. All of the options would reduce the amount of time motorists spend in peak-hour traffic congestion by at least 20 percent, with some cutting it by 35 percent, according to the analysis.
If nothing is done by 2040, the study found, morning traffic on the Capital Beltway between College Park and Bethesda will average 14 mph, taking 43 minutes to travel about 10 miles. Under some tolling alternatives, that trip would drop to as little as 13 minutes in the regular lanes and 10 minutes in the toll lanes.
In Prince George’s County, the study found, morning Beltway traffic between Interstate 95 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge would average 23 mph and take 67 minutes if nothing is done by 2040. Under some alternatives, that trip would take about 50 minutes in the regular lanes and 44 minutes in the toll lanes.
The Maryland State Highway Administration is considering both high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, such as Virginia has built, and express toll lanes. HOT lanes allow high-occupancy vehicles to use them free or at a reduced cost, while express toll lanes cost the same for all vehicles.
Tolls, which haven’t been set, would vary to keep the lanes flowing at or above 45 mph, officials said. Regular lanes would remain free, and Slater said the state is exploring ways for buses to use the toll lanes at no cost.
The two options that found the greatest travel time savings and other benefits include four toll lanes on each highway. One would add two HOT lanes in each direction to the Beltway. On I-270, the existing single high-
occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes would be converted to HOT lanes, and an additional HOT lane would be built in each direction.
The other would add two express toll lanes in each direction on both the Beltway and I-270, in addition to retaining the HOV lanes on I-270.
Hogan (R) has touted toll lanes as the only way the state can afford to provide significant relief on some of the most congested highways in the state. He has said the lanes, which are estimated to cost $9 billion to $11 billion, would cost the state nothing because the private partner would finance their construction and build and operate them in exchange for keeping the toll revenue.
Maryland highway officials also have cast the proposal as the only way to expand the American Legion Bridge, one of the region’s most notorious bottlenecks. Virginia already has added toll lanes to its section of the Beltway and I-95, leading some road proponents to argue that Maryland has lagged in easing motorists’ daily misery.
Even so, Hogan’s proposal has drawn criticism from transit advocates, residents in communities along the highways and some public officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who say the governor’s proposal gives short shrift to transit alternatives and would affect too many homes and businesses.
The lanes probably would be built in phases, state officials said, beginning with the most congested part of the Beltway between the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia to I-95, including the American Legion Bridge. Construction on the rest of Maryland’s portion of the Beltway east and south to Route 5, as well as I-270 between the Beltway and I-370, would begin within two years of construction starting on the first phase .
The environmental and community impacts of those highway segments will be included in a future study, state officials said.
At the public workshop Thursday night, Prince George’s residents pored over maps showing the outlines of a potentially wider Beltway.
Judy Brenneman, who lives five blocks from the Beltway in New Carrollton, said she was surprised the project wouldn’t take more homes. She said she didn’t see any homes in her neighborhood that would be affected.
Brenneman, 68, said she’s watched the region’s traffic backups worsen over the past 30 years, even on Sunday afternoons when she picks up her grandchildren.
“I’m not against tolls as long as there are other options” to use the regular lanes, she said. “I assume the roads will be better because of it.”
Many agreed the Beltway needs help. However, some residents said they wanted to know how much the tolls would potentially cost. Several cited Northern Virginia’s new HOT lanes on Interstate 66, where the variable tolls average $35.50 during the peak of the 8:30 a.m. rush and have soared to as high as $47.50.
Jameela Charles, who lives in Clinton, said she would rather pay a higher gas tax to fund improvements.
“I don’t think we should have to pay for roads that we’ve already paid for with our tax dollars,” said Charles, 52, a real estate broker.
She said she’s also concerned that the private companies that would build and operate the toll lanes would be driven by profits rather than what’s best for motorists, especially those with lower incomes.
“People can barely afford rents, and now these tolls will be like Lexus lanes,” Charles said. “People with higher incomes will be in the fast lanes, and poor people will be stuck over here.”
But Joshua Walker, 34, a sixth-grade science teacher from Hyattsville, said traffic is too bad to hold off on potential improvements, especially if toll lanes would allow for faster, more reliable bus service.
“I’ve been saying for years that something has to be done about the Beltway because it’s getting out of hand,” Walker said.
He said he was opposed to tolls until he used the express toll lanes on Interstate 95 north of Baltimore.
“You don’t even know you’re in rush hour,” Walker said.
And what about the potential impacts on some nearby homes?
“I’d say the greater good requires the Beltway to have more lanes,” Walker said. “But I also don’t have property bordering the Beltway that I’ve worked for all of my life, so I don’t have that same emotional attachment.”
Following the public workshops, the seven alternatives will undergo more-detailed analysis before the state recommends a preferred alternative. Public hearings on that recommendation are scheduled to be held early next year.
Materials presented at the public workshop are available here.