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Opponents sue over Maryland plan to add toll lanes to Beltway, I-270

The lawsuit from the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club and three other groups cites flaws in the toll lane project’s environmental study

The western part of the Capital Beltway in Maryland, including the American Legion Bridge, would be expanded under a state plan to add toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club and three other groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against a state plan to widen Interstate 270 and part of the Capital Beltway with toll lanes, saying the proposal’s environmental analysis was “deficient.”

The lawsuit asks that the U.S. District Court in Maryland vacate the project’s federal environmental approval and prevent the state “from taking further steps to finance, build and operate the project” until it complies with federal environmental law.

The lawsuit has been expected, as court action on environmental grounds is common for large infrastructure projects. Project opponents have argued since Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) first announced the plan in 2017 that expanding highways promotes auto-dependent sprawl and exacerbates climate change.

The Sierra Club called the toll lanes proposal “harmful and unnecessary,” saying it would increase air pollution and not alleviate the region’s traffic congestion.

“Given the climate crisis before us, there are smarter, cleaner ways to improve our transportation system,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter.

Hogan plan for toll lanes on Beltway, I-270 receives federal environmental approval

Spokespeople for both the Federal Highway Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation said their agencies do not comment on pending litigation.

In announcing the federal approval of the state’s environmental analysis in August, MDOT said its highway-expansion proposal would avoid homes and businesses while “significantly” reducing effects on parkland and other natural resources.

On Wednesday, project supporters called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said they expect a judge will dismiss it.

Jason Stanford, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said MDOT “has done an extraordinary job mitigating and reducing the environmental impacts” of the toll lanes plan.

“This frivolous lawsuit clearly has no ground to stand on,” Stanford said. “Maryland should continue moving forward with this important, multimodal transportation improvement for our region.”

The lawsuit complicates the Hogan administration’s attempts to win approval of a 50-year contract on the highway expansions as part of the governor’s signature traffic relief project. Under the plan, a team of companies would finance the lanes’ construction, build them and operate them long-term in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue. Supporters hope to secure a deal before the term-limited Hogan leaves office in January, as both Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore and Republican nominee Dan Cox have said they would consider significant changes.

Maryland appeals court hears arguments in toll lanes bid protest

While the state’s Board of Public Works — composed of the governor, comptroller and state treasurer — may approve a project’s contract while a lawsuit is pending, doing so would increase the state’s financial risk. A surprise ruling in an environmental lawsuit against the state’s light-rail Purple Line project caused one of several significant construction delays that increased costs and ultimately led to the original contractor quitting. The light-rail project is more than 4½ years behind schedule and $1.46 billion, or nearly 75 percent, over budget.

The toll lanes project also faces a bid protest from a losing bidder on the first contract to design the lanes. That case is pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that federal highway officials approved Maryland’s environmental study of the toll lanes proposal in August “without disclosing crucial information about their conclusion that the project would reduce traffic congestion.” Government officials also “refused to examine key threats to public health and historic sites,” according to the 46-page filing.

Toll lanes critics cite possible flaws in Maryland toll lanes traffic analysis

In addition to the state chapter of the Sierra Club, the lawsuit was filed by Friends of Moses Hall, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was filed against the Federal Highway Administration and MDOT, as well as top federal and state highway officials.

The lawsuit says the proposal threatens two historical sites: the Morningstar Moses Cemetery, a historical African American cemetery bordering the Beltway in Cabin John, and Plummers Island, a research site for the Washington Biologists’ Field Club below the American Legion Bridge.

Biologists say a wider American Legion Bridge would destroy critical research site

Diane Baxter, a board member of Friends of Moses Hall, said the state “must account for and protect the remains” in the cemetery before any work proceeds. The Beltway was built through the historical African American community of Gibson Grove. Grave sites in the cemetery bordering the Beltway date to the early 1890s.

“State officials have acknowledged the damage done to historic Black communities when the Beltway was built in the 1960s,” Baxter said in a statement, “but that hasn’t stopped them from moving to harm our community once again.”

State says gravesites found near Beltway would be spared in toll lanes plan

MDOT officials have said they will spare the grave sites, saying the outer edge of the highway’s expansion would be about five feet from the closest area where radar has found burial sites.

Under Hogan’s plan, two toll lanes would be added in each direction to both highways, though one of the I-270 toll lanes would be converted from a carpool lane. The regular lanes would remain free.

The first segment would include the Beltway between the Virginia side of a new and expanded American Legion Bridge and the exit for Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, and then up I-270 to near I-370. The northern section of I-270 between I-370 and Frederick is undergoing a separate federally required environmental analysis.

This story has been updated to include a quote from toll lane project supporters.