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Lawmakers: Environmental review of Hogan highway plan is ‘heavily skewed’

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Nearly 70 members of the Maryland General Assembly have accused the State Highway Administration of tailoring a federally-mandated environmental study to fit a preordained plan for adding capacity to two highways in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

They also accuse the SHA, the agency responsible for advancing Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s 2017 lane-widening plan, of failing to follow federal law in determining how new lanes would impact communities where low-income residents and people of color are in the majority — so-called “environmental justice” (EJ) communities.

The lawmakers expressed their “frustration and extreme concern” with the document — the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) of the I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study — in a sharply-worded letter to Lisa B. Choplin, the director of the project, on Wednesday.

“At best, the DEIS presents incomplete and inadequate analysis,” the lawmakers wrote. “At worst, it is heavily skewed toward selecting the outcome the Maryland Department of Transportation and Governor would like, so that MDOT can move forward with its predetermined preferred alternative.”

The letter was signed by 11 state senators and 58 members of the House of Delegates — more than one-third of the General Assembly. All are Democrats and most represent Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties.

Many have long voiced opposition to Hogan’s plan to add four “express toll lanes,” funded and built by private-sector contractors, to the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Interstate 270.

The lawmakers accuse the SHA-authored study of both legal and policy deficiencies:

  • They complain it fails to compare how the lane-widening plan would impact majority white and nonwhite communities. The report “simply describes the 36 EJ communities in the study area,” legislators wrote. “The DEIS makes only conclusory statements claiming that the managed lanes will benefit EJ communities, despite the expected high toll prices and environmental impacts to their communities.”
  • While the draft impact report analyzes nearly a dozen potential design alternatives, lawmakers fault the study’s authors for failing to note the governor’s mandate to build four new toll lanes. “Under federal law, a DEIS need not specify a preferred alternative, but if there is a preferred alternative, it is supposed to be disclosed,” they wrote, providing the citation in federal law. “It is obvious to anyone who has ever heard the Governor and prior Secretary of Transportation speak that Alternative 9 — two managed lanes in each direction on both roads — is the Department’s preferred alternative and you have failed to disclose that information.”
  • The legislators said the failure “to take a hard look at the human health and environmental impacts of the proposed expansion… is contrary to the law.”
  • They also note that the study conducts no analysis of the changes in commuting patterns brought on by COVID-19, because researchers had concluded their data-gathering before the pandemic hit. “It is… irresponsible to not take these tremendous shifts in to account.”
  • The lawmakers likewise complain that the state plans “to rely on water quality trading credits, purchased from other… programs, to meet permitting requirements, instead of actually reducing water pollution where the project is located.”
  • They also call out SHA for doing insufficient analysis of the impact of express toll lanes on arterial roads and for the increases in travel times for commuters who use northbound I-270 in the evening. “There are five needs stated in the DEIS’ Purpose and Need section and none of them are ‘increase traffic.’”

In a statement on Friday evening, the agency declined to address the specific concerns raised by lawmakers.

“We just received the letter yesterday and appreciate members of the General Assembly reaching out to MDOT with their feedback and concerns,” MDOT said.

“As with all comments we receive on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, we will be considering all input and all comments both individually and as a whole as we continue to develop the Managed Lanes Study. We will be preparing a detailed response which can be shared, once complete.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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