Costly, Complex and Confusing
By: Joe Nathanson November 25, 2022
The project is complex, with many moving parts, vast in scope, and costly. I’m referring to
the proposal to alleviate traffic congestion in the Washington suburbs by replacing the
aging American Legion bridge spanning the Potomac River and adding toll lanes on sections
of the Capital Beltway and a major highway corridor through Montgomery County, MD. The
Interstate-495/ Interstate-270 toll lanes project is the signature highway expansion
proposed back in 2017 by Governor Larry Hogan and his former transportation secretary,
Pete Rahm. These roadways are to be designed, built and operated by a private contractor
over a 50-year period, with a contract valued upwards of $5 billion. Under a public-private-
partnership or P3 project, the contractor would retain most of the toll revenues and
construct the new facilities on its own account.
Because of the complexity of this infrastructure investment, it should not surprise us that
the selected private contractor, Accelerate Maryland Partners, has requested additional time
to finalize its contract, extending their timeline to March 2023. As a result, a final sign-off
on the project cannot come about until after a new Maryland administration is in office.
This poses a major challenge for this project to move forward. There is general consensus
regarding the urgency of replacing the Potomac crossing. However, incoming governor Wes
Moore has raised serious questions about the toll road component of this P3 project. He has
indicated that alternative solutions for reducing traffic congestion, including the use of more
mass transit, implementing reversable lanes, and other measures would have to be
considered. He would also like to receive more input from the local governments affected
by the planned roads. Comptroller-elect Brooke E. Lierman has also expressed her
skepticism about the proposal. Those two newly elected officials would represent two of the
three votes on Maryland’s Board of Public Works, responsible for approving state contracts.
The third member of the board is expected to be returning state Treasurer Dereck E. Davis.
Road Wars II
In my October column dealing with the Baltimore “road wars” of the 1960s and 1970s, I
suggested that those wars were not over. A new front has been active in the Washington
region for years, with a specific focus on the proposed toll lanes. Some are concerned with
the environmental damage that might result from adding two new lanes in each direction.
Others deride the so-called “Lexus lanes” allowing higher income drivers to buy their way out of traffic congestion. While some may look on these activities as obstructionism, others
readily welcome them as being mindful of community concerns otherwise neglected.
One of the more active of the current road warriors is Ben Ross, who has served as head of
the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and has for years researched and written
about transportation and land use. His 2014 book, “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the
Rebirth of American Urbanism”, was described as “a highly personal account of a larger
journey that we are embarked on as a nation — from sprawl to walkable communities, from
anoxic, sterile neighborhoods to vibrant, transit-served urban areas that are the wellspring
of innovation, economic development and cultural richness.”, by John Porcari, former
Deputy Secretary, United States Department of Transportation who previously served as
In July of this year Ben Ross challenged the traffic forecasts used in the Final Environ-
mental Impact Statement (FEIS) submitted to USDOT in support of the I-495/ I-270
project. In fact, he submitted a letter to USDOT alleging “numerous anomalies” that appear
to be of questionable origin and he urged the federal officials to commission an
independent review to rule out “scientific fraud.” The Federal Highway Administration did,
in fact, submit the issue to its research arm, the Volpe Center located in Cambridge, MA.
According to Ross, the “Volpe Center confirms our letter’s contention that the results
presented in the FEIS were generated by adjusting intermediate or final model outputs by
hand. Volpe stated that it ‘could not assess the plausibility or validity of these
I myself, earlier this year, tried to determine from both Maryland officials and from the
Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments transportation planning staff what metrics
are being used to establish that the P3 plan will actually result in reduced traffic congestion.
I did not have success. I think the Maryland public deserves much more clarity on this
matter before embarking on such a monumental endeavor.
Joe Nathanson is the retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based
economic and community development consulting firm. Since 2001, he has written a
monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at [email protected]