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Maryland to Seek Federal Grants to Expand Capital Beltway, Rebuild Major Bridge

Wed August 30, 2023 - Northeast Edition #19
Maryland Matters & CEG

(Wikimedia maps)
(Wikimedia maps)

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announced plans Aug. 21 to expand the Capital Beltway/Interstate 495, add toll lanes and rebuild the American Legion Bridge across the Potomac River from Virginia to his state without a public-private partnership, or P3, as the previous administration had planned.

Moore said the state will apply for more than $3 billion in federal grants to get the project off the ground.

"Transportation is not just about physical mobility, it's about quality of life, access and opportunity," the governor explained in a statement. "The transportation network throughout Maryland and the [Washington, D.C. region] must be able to get people where they need to go in a timely and reliable manner. Providing long-desired, equitable transportation solutions in the American Legion Bridge and I-270 corridors is critical to eliminating employment barriers, linking more people to high-demand jobs and stimulating local economies."

The state also wants funding to ease congestion around the heavily traveled bridge, a move that could potentially provide traffic relief in the region without privately managed toll lanes.

The application seeks a $2.4 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The application, however, does not specifically preclude a P3 model favored by former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, according to Maryland Matters.

"The opportunity to use public funding, particularly if we can put out any federal dollars, just makes a lot of sense for us to do," said Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Secretary Paul Wiedefeld. "And sort of in a larger picture, P3s can work in different situations. We'll see if it applies to this. Right now, we're focusing pretty heavily on the public financing of this project."

Included in Moore's statement is a plan to listen to the public's concerns at open houses in Montgomery and Frederick counties this fall and winter.

The governor's announcement was met with praise from Democratic Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich.

"Upon hearing this news today, there are going to be many activists, residents and commuters concerned about tolling and environmental impacts, as well as potential expansion of these roads into nearby communities," Elrich noted in a statement. "While I understand their trepidation, I am heartened by the [acknowledgement from the] Moore administration and MDOT that engaging with the communities is fundamental to the success of this project, and based on conversations thus far, I am optimistic that this project can be done without the impacts that people are concerned about."

Expansion Project to Start With Bridge Rebuild

The proposed highway project extends along a 6.5-mi. stretch from the George Washington Memorial Parkway to the western spur of I-270. Future phases could be used to address congestion from the west spur of I-270 to I-370, north of Rockville.

MDOT officials said phasing in the project will allow for "a rational and fiscally prudent phased development."

The plan includes a rebuild of the American Legion Bridge, long seen as a bottleneck for commuters.

"The bridge is the current choke point, and it made no sense to start elsewhere," Elrich told Maryland Matters. "By starting at the bridge, we can then see how that work impacts the traffic flow on the Beltway and on I-270."

In addition, managed lanes would be used to widen portions of the project.

The construction plan, which has not yet been finalized, will likely include some form of toll lanes that, if managed by the state government, would likely be less expensive than what was projected if the project was built and managed for the state by a private consortium, MDOT noted.

Pending its funding, the highway expansion and bridge construction could be completed as soon as 2031.

"Well, it would be years, obviously," said Wiedefeld. "I think we also need to work very closely with a lot of other players in this, clearly the communities and some of the other stakeholders. That will drive some of this schedule, clearly."

MDOT Confident in Viability of Grant Application

A review and approval could come in three to six months, according to Maryland's Assistant Transportation Secretary Joe McAndrew.

"Right now, the ball will be in [USDOT's] court to review kind of how our grant matches up to the criteria set out," McAndrew said. "And then they'll weigh our application against our peers throughout the country to determine whether or not we are deemed worthy. We think we've got a very competitive grant application and we're hopeful and optimistic."

The state's 61-page application seeks roughly $2.4 billion in initial funding. Wiedefeld said MDOT will seek another $800 million from "a different pot" of federal money, while the state would contribute another $800 million.

The existing record of decision from the I-495 and I-270 plans proposed under Hogan will be used for the implementation of managed lanes under the new plan.

The project will still require additional permits, including those from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. More environmental approvals and permits could be required if the project expands.

Virginia already moved forward with its expansion of the Capital Beltway all the way up to the American Legion Bridge. Construction has been going on there for months.

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