Countywide

VDOT: Toll lanes operator’s exit from Maryland project won’t affect I-495 widening in Virginia

On the Capital Beltway at the American Legion Bridge into Maryland (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

(Updated at 2:50 p.m. on 3/16/2023) Virginia’s extension of the I-495 Express Lanes past the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean remains on track for a 2025 opening, even as its counterpart across the Potomac River faces another setback in its efforts to widen the Capital Beltway.

Private toll lanes operator Transurban pulled out of Maryland’s project to add toll lanes on its side of the Beltway and replace the American Legion Bridge on Friday (March 10), citing “significant delays to environmental approvals, changing political landscape and environmental lawsuits that remain unresolved.”

While that project is now in limbo, the Virginia Department of Transportation says Transurban’s departure won’t affect its I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) plan, which is entering a second year of construction this month.

“Virginia’s 495 NEXT project to extend the Express Lanes on the Beltway is independent of the Maryland project,” VDOT told FFXnow. “…While VDOT will continue to coordinate with Maryland as they determine how to best deliver the Maryland project, we do not anticipate changes to the 495 NEXT project.”

The Virginia project has long been plagued by fears that Maryland won’t follow through on the so-called Beltway Accord that then-governors Ralph Northam and Larry Hogan announced in 2019 to replace the American Legion Bridge, which opened in 1962 and last expanded in 1992.

(Correction: This story previously said the bridge hadn’t been updated since it originally opened, but it was widened to 10 lanes in 1992. Hat tip to boywaja)

Where Virginia officials have embraced them as a means of addressing traffic congestion, express lanes have faced fierce opposition in Maryland from residents, environmental groups and local leaders, particularly in Montgomery County from as far back as 2005.

Despite that tangled history, which has included court battles, delays and a downsizing, VDOT expressed confidence in a statement to FFXnow that Maryland will ultimately move forward with its Beltway toll lanes, noting that the project has gotten federal approval.

Our colleagues in Maryland have told us that they remain committed to congestion relief in the corridor and have expressed their intention to deliver their project in accordance with the federally approved Record of Decision, which is a managed lanes project. Virginia will continue to coordinate with Maryland as they determine their next steps to alleviate one of the region’s worst traffic bottlenecks.

The department maintains that, even on its own, 495 NEXT will reduce congestion and provide new travel options. In addition to adding 2.5 miles of toll lanes to the region’s roughly 90-mile network, the project includes a shared-use trail and could usher in bus service between Tysons and Maryland.

An environmental assessment from 2020 found that 495 NEXT will move 2,500 more people per hour in both directions and reduce travel times by up to 24 minutes for northbound drivers, according to VDOT.

“By increasing the person-carrying capacity of I-495, drivers will have less incentive to use neighborhood cut-through routes, reducing traffic on local roads,” VDOT said. “The 495 NEXT project will also improve safety throughout the corridor, and replace aging bridges and other existing infrastructure.”

McLean residents and Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, who represents the area, have argued that failing to extend the toll lanes into Maryland will result in traffic getting bottlenecked at the American Legion Bridge, forcing their neighborhoods to bear the project’s costs for minimal benefits.

Construction on 495 NEXT is expected to continue into 2026, with the express lanes opening to traffic by late 2025.