The Biden administration has cleared a planned $7.6 billion widening of the Beltway in Maryland, after the project was scaled back to reduce its environmental impact. However, it is uncertain when work will commence and critics say they will continue to try to thwart it.
The Federal Highway Administration issued a “record of decision” on Aug. 25 endorsing the Maryland Department of Transportation’s plan to add toll lanes to the western portion of the Capital Beltway as well as to a major feeder route, Interstate 270, The Bay Journal reported on Aug. 29. The project also includes replacing and widening the 60-year-old American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River.
Gov. Larry Hogan called the federal approval “a major milestone” and said the state is “ready to move forward with this transformative project.”
Approval from the highway administration, which makes the project eligible for federal funding, came less than a month after federal officials notified Maryland that their review of the project’s many environmental impacts had been put on hold, the published report says. Hogan responded by publicly pressing for the project, saying that federal bureaucratic delays had driven construction costs up 20%. He said the state has applied for a federal grant to cover the increased costs.
The approved plan has been substantially scaled back from the version the state proposed five years ago. Originally, state officials wanted to widen virtually the entire Maryland portion of the Interstate 495.
The revision avoids displacing any homes or businesses. It also will give commuter buses free access to the toll lanes and provide bicyclists and pedestrians with a shared path over the Potomac on the new, widened bridge.
The revised plan also shrinks the amount of parkland and other cultural sites that would be affected by the widening.
“It is exactly the kind of bold and forward-thinking solution that Marylanders have been crying out for, for years if not decades,” Hogan said in a statement.
Critics still don’t like the planned project and are continuing their efforts to stall it.
Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said he was disappointed by the federal decision but declared that “this is not the final word on this fundamentally flawed project.”
Tulkin said that the developer still does not have a construction partner and a losing bidder has filed a legal challenge to the contract award. He said both major party candidates for governor have expressed reservations about the project. He said the Sierra Club and other opponents are studying the federal decision and “considering our legal options.”
“We’re not going to fix the region’s traffic problems by widening highways, ignoring climate change and signing over control of critical transportation infrastructure to a foreign corporation for the next 50 years,” Tulkin said.