MDOT’s plan to build toll lanes in Fairfax comes as an unwelcome surprise to some Virginians

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Maryland’s plans to do major construction along the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County are not going down well with some residents and elected leaders in Northern Virginia who are wondering why another state is involved in transportation projects outside of its borders.

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Maryland’s plans to do major construction along the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County are not going down well with some residents and elected leaders in Northern Virginia who are wondering why another state is involved in transportation projects outside of its borders.

Critics say key details of the projects have only recently come to light — and they claim they have been hampered in their efforts to get officials from the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Transportation and tollway operator Transurban to answer their questions Detail.

Officials from the two states held two town hall meetings last week — one at a high school in McLean, the other online. Although officials valiantly tried to answer residents’ questions, many participants left the sessions frustrated.

“Everyone’s alarmed and everyone’s pissed off,” said Mei-Mei Venners, owner of a McLean real estate company, in an interview. “It has to do with enlargement [toll] lanes and trying to get this under the radar before anyone says stop.

Transurban owns and operates more than 50 miles of variable-rate toll lanes throughout northern Virginia, and VDOT has expanded its existing contract with the company to extend toll lanes closer to the American Legion Bridge, a project the agency is calling 495NEXT.

Maryland’s proposed work in Fairfax County picks up essentially where 495Next ends, at a point south of the George Washington Memorial Parkway/I-495 intersection. If his plan is approved by the federal government, MDOT would build four toll lanes in Virginia at different rates and completely redesign the Parkway/Beltway interchange — all as part of an ambitious proposal unveiled by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R ) in 2017.

The plan calls for the rebuilding and widening of the American Legion Bridge. On Friday, federal and state officials are expected to release a final environmental impact statement on the first phase of Maryland’s plan, which would run from the GW Parkway to the I-270 split and then north to I-370.

Maryland has selected Accelerate Maryland Partners, a Transurban-led consortium, to fund and potentially build its “managed” rails. Virginia’s contract with Transurban dates back to 2007.

While there have been numerous headlines on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, Fairfax residents say they were surprised by the news that Maryland will be adding toll lanes well into Northern Virginia.

“I have been fully tuned into this for some time and only recently learned what they are proposing to do,” said Fairfax Supervisor John Foust (D), representing the area where the construction is scheduled to take place. “My voters are very upset.”

Foust said Transurban has made significant efforts for the community and its leaders in the past, but this time is different. “It’s very difficult to get information from Maryland or Virginia about who is responsible for what,” he said.

“It’s weird,” Virginia State Senator Barbara Favola (D) said in an interview. Favola, who represents parts of Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, attended the town hall meetings last week. “We went home with a lot of unanswered questions because, to be honest, Maryland’s involvement has really just been leaked [last week’s] Meet at Langley High School.”

Citizens who spoke at the meetings raised a variety of objections. They raised concerns that Maryland officials would not respond to their concerns about construction-related congestion, whether noise and visual disturbances will increase, whether headlights from cars on overpass ramps might shine into people’s homes, and how traffic on arterial roads would be affected.

Susan Shaw, VDOT director of mega projects, said the two states and Transurban are coordinating closely to ensure the project is seamless. She said even if Maryland’s project doesn’t move forward — Hogan is leaving office in January and facing a tight schedule — the 495Next project will work on its own.

“The project is coordinated. We have a number of scenarios under which the project could be carried out, so we just have to remain flexible about how this work could proceed,” she told an audience at City Hall. “At the end of the day, if the Maryland project doesn’t happen before the completion of our project, our project is an asset.” Shaw acknowledged that it’s “complicated” when two states have big projects side by side at about the same time perform page.

Frustrated local residents said they had so many unanswered questions, mostly about whether MDOT is accountable to the Fairfax communities, that they called Favola, Foust (D) and the Del. Asked Kathleen Murphy (D) to submit a four-page list of questions to VDOT on her behalf. The list included a wide range of questions – 49 in total – that examined every aspect of the project.

Critics say they are particularly concerned about the plan for the GW Parkway/I-495 intersection, which includes five “fly-over” ramps. “I really don’t know why Maryland has to build that part of it,” Favola said. “That’s a super good question and we’re just trying to get answers to it.”

Foust said MDOT officials told him they wanted to “record for the toll road operator” the revenue that motorists in Maryland would be willing to spend to use future toll lanes connecting the Beltway to the Parkway. “I don’t know why Virginia agrees to allow this,” he said.

In an interview, Maryland Secretary of Transportation James F. Ports Jr. said it’s not uncommon for states to work together on cross-border projects. He cited the Nice/Middleton Bridge in southern Maryland as an example. He said negotiations with VDOT on the I-495 project are ongoing.

“We are in ongoing negotiations with Virginia over who will do the work,” he said.

Maryland’s selection of Accelerate Maryland Partners to design its freeway plan gives the company first refusal on a subsequent construction contract estimated at $9 billion to $11 billion.

It also sparked a lawsuit from an unsuccessful bidder, Capital Express Mobility Partners, a consortium led by two Madrid-based companies. They claimed AM Partners used unrealistically low profit margins to get the deal. Briefs in the case were due this week and are expected to go to trial this summer.

(Last summer, the construction company listed in AM Partners’ original bid package withdrew from the project without explanation. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman said the consortium’s search for a contractor “is active and expected to be completed shortly.”)

MDOT’s current plan is a small part of what Hogan proposed five years ago. He first attempted to add four toll lanes—two in each direction—to all Maryland portions of the Beltway, I-270, and the federally owned Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Hogan, a real estate agent before he went into politics, said his plan would finally address the “soul-crushing” traffic that keeps people away from their families and erodes the region’s economic potential.

The state has drastically scaled back its ambitions in the face of opposition from citizens, elected officials and environmentalists, mostly in Montgomery County. The cascade of delays has jeopardized the governor’s bid to get a construction contract approved by the Board of Public Works before he leaves office in January. Comptroller and governor hopeful Peter VR Franchot (D), a former Montgomery County state legislature, could be the change vote on the three-member board.

Many commuters and business groups have praised Hogan for taking steps to solve some of the country’s worst traffic problems. They say new lanes are needed to clear existing bottlenecks and accommodate future residents. Hogan said implementing the project as a public-private partnership will protect taxpayers and motorists who choose not to use the toll lanes will experience shorter commute times.

But Fairfax residents said it was unfair to expect Virginia residents to have to search the MDOT website for information about projects happening in their communities.

“[AM Partners] is working with the pre-build folks to determine all of these things,” Ports said when asked about the impact of construction in Northern Virginia. “Some things have been outlined, but not everything is settled, so you won’t have all the answers yet. I don’t know how we should know all the answers before they are evaluated, planned and designed. They might be premature in what they are looking for.”

An MDOT official speaking at the town hall meetings said the agency’s public relations plan has been accepted by the Federal Highway Administration, whose approval is required before construction can begin. He noted that MDOT staffed tables at two VDOT community events — one in 2019, the other in 2020 — and that the agency ran an ad in the Washington Post.

Foust strenuously denies that the public relations work was effective. He said the only printed copy of MDOT’s draft environmental document is at VDOT headquarters. “I don’t know anyone who goes into this building,” he said. “I don’t think efforts have been made to inform residents and [myself] the nature of what has been proposed.”

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) noted that Maryland’s role in adding toll lanes in Virginia has long been a feature of the project. “I wish I could say that surprises me, but I’m not,” he said. Korman suggested the federal government could play a role in making sure residents aren’t caught off guard on multi-state projects.

Venners, McLean’s real estate agent, said she regularly interviews people she meets about Maryland’s work in Fairfax. “Every single person I’ve spoken to about this is completely unaware that this is a toll lane extension.”

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