Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Friday blasted federal transportation officials for delaying a decision that would have cleared the way for him to move forward with a plan to build toll lanes on Interstate 270 and part of the Capital Beltway, according to a letter he sent to the Biden administration.
Hogan said he was “completely blindsided” and chided the acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration for failing to approve the state’s environmental plan for the project by a Friday target date. In the letter, addressed to President Biden and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Hogan urged that they overturn the decision to take more time to study the issue. While Hogan did not name the official, he appears to be referring to Stephanie Pollack, who is the current acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.
“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,” Hogan said in the letter. “While we do not want it to come to that, these reckless and apparently politically-motivated actions may leave us with no other choice.”
Officials from Hogan’s office and the Maryland Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the toll lane project, did not respond to questions regarding the specifics of the acting administrator’s decision or how long it could delay the project. They also did not comment on what Hogan meant by “politically-motivated actions.”
In June, Maryland officials released the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for the project. Officials from the FHWA must sign off on the FEIS and issue a “record of decision” in order for the project to receive federal funding. MDOT officials also have said they will not move forward until they receive that approval.
Pollack declined to comment on Hogan’s remarks, but in a statement, the agency indicated it needed more time to review comments on the potential environmental impacts of the project, which would widen and add toll lanes to I-270 and part of the Capital Beltway. The federal agency said it is continuing to work with officials from the Maryland Department of Transportation but gave no timeline for when that review would be completed.
“There have been strong feelings about this project and it is FHWA’s responsibility not to pick a side, but to ensure that the [National Environmental Policy Act] process is followed with integrity,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “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.”
A federal dashboard created to monitor the status of infrastructure projects gave Aug. 5 as a target date for approval of the environmental study, but agency officials cautioned what is listed is not a deadline, but rather an estimate.
The plan to widen part of the Capital Beltway and I-270, two of the region’s most congested highways, has been years in the making and is Hogan’s signature traffic-relief initiative. But with only a few months left in office, Hogan’s window for moving the project forward is narrowing.
Hogan wants to seek approval from the state’s Board of Public Works this fall for the contract, a public-private partnership worth billions of dollars to finance, build and operate the lanes. Winning approval for the plan would lock Maryland into a 50-year agreement with a private concessionaire.
However, Hogan is term-limited, and if he is unable to secure the contract before leaving office in January, there are concerns that a new governor could make changes or even cancel the project.
Under the plan outlined by the Maryland Department of Transportation, the state would add two toll lanes in each direction to the Beltway between the Virginia side of a new and expanded American Legion Bridge and the exit for Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. From there, the lanes would extend up I-270 to Frederick, with the lower part to Interstate 370 being built first.
The regular lanes would be rebuilt and remain free. One of the toll lanes on lower I-270 would come from a converted carpool lane.
But the plan has drawn opposition from some officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as environmental groups and transit advocates. This week, Casey Anderson, chair of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, sent a letter to officials at MDOT and the FHWA requesting additional time to review the potential environmental impacts of the project.
“Thank you to the Federal Highway Administration for responding to the concerns of the communities impacted by this project and delaying action to allow additional time for constituents to understand the environmental, transportation and financial implications of this project," said Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5).
Approval of the FEIS also is significant because it would start a five-month clock for opponents to file any lawsuits on environmental grounds.
Hogan also blamed federal officials for two years of delays that have increased the cost of the project by more than 20 percent. As a result, he said he would seek additional federal dollars to cover the increases.
“The fundamental flaws built into this harmful project are finally catching up to it,” said Josh Tulkin, Sierra Club Maryland Chapter director. “Despite repeatedly promising that this massive expansion of the Beltway and 270 would come at no net cost to Marylanders, Gov. Hogan’s letter now admits that this project may need a subsidy ‘potentially costing Maryland taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.’”
However, groups that support the project said it must move forward.
“In addition to stranding the hundreds of thousands of people who are stuck in soul-crushing traffic on the American Legion Bridge every day, failing to move forward will cost Maryland taxpayers billions in private financing, and hundreds of millions of dollars for local transit, bike, and pedestrian improvements in Montgomery County that are part of this multimodal project,” said Jason Stanford, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.