Gov. Larry Hogan is pushing an ambitious and expensive highway project to relieve traffic in the Washington suburbs by enlisting a private company to build and manage toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.
The case for Hogan’s $11 billion plan has won some support among the region’s commuters. By having a private company take on the project, Hogan’s transportation officials say, Maryland will get sorely needed traffic relief without having to pay for it with taxpayer dollars.
But as the project nears a key vote Wednesday by the Maryland Board of Public Works, some residents and elected officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are questioning the wisdom of adding lanes to reduce congestion and complaining the state hasn’t listened to their feedback. They suggest that the state didn’t evaluate all its options — such as making more modest road improvements or expanding transit — and instead is stuck on adding toll lanes.
The Republican governor has acidly commented on Twitter and Facebook that those concerned by the plan are just “pro-traffic activists” bent on plotting “to keep the roads filled with traffic.”
“I think he could do better,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat. “I’m surprised he didn’t let his staff do a fuller analysis and be creative.”
The dispute foreshadows fights to come around Baltimore, where officials also struggle with traffic and are pushing for more spending on transit as well as roads.
Around Washington, both opponents and supporters agree about the heavy congestion on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. Hogan calls it “soul crushing.”
Opinions diverge on what’s the best way to alleviate traffic and get commuters moving around the nation’s capital — and how to pay for it.
Hogan’s plan, announced in 2017, is to contract with a private company to widen the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, under a 50-year agreement, known as a “concession.”
The extra lanes would be toll lanes, similar to ones added on Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. The private company would keep the toll payments to recoup the money it spends on construction and, eventually, make a profit. This type of project is known as a “public-private partnership” or “P3” in government lingo.
The initial cost of work on all three roads was pegged at $9 billion, which has risen since to $11 billion. Planning for the Beltway and I-270 is moving forward; the parkway project has not because the federal government owns and controls most of that highway.
Pete Rahn, the state’s transportation secretary, believes a public-private partnership is a sound way for the state to spend almost no money upfront and end up with more lanes to alleviate traffic jams.
“We don’t have the resources to undertake this in a traditional way,” Rahn said. “We’ve got to do something and without resources, the toolkit that is available to us is the public-private partnership.”
That way, the state’s limited transportation dollars can be spent on other projects around the state, instead of being sunk entirely into one project, Rahn said.
And he believes that the toll lanes will work. Drivers who opt to pay to use the toll lanes will free up space in the regular lanes — helping everyone on the road, Rahn said.
“By getting traffic out of the free lanes, we benefit people in the free lanes,” he said.
Others deride such lanes as “Lexus lanes” that only benefit those who can afford to pay to drive in them. Critics point to neighboring Virginia, where toll lane prices on Interstate 66 sometimes rise as high as $40.
The first segment of the Maryland project will include 16 miles of Beltway widening with toll lanes, stretching from the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River in Montgomery County around to Interstate 95 near College Park in Prince George’s County.
The Maryland Transportation Authority will set the toll rates, which are likely to fluctuate based on time of day and amount of congestion.
Some in the Washington suburbs aren’t convinced that the toll-road approach is the right one.
Brad German, co-chair of the group Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, said the evidence supporting toll lanes as a solution to congestion is “dodgy at best.”
“When you widen roads, congestion catches up. It doesn’t provide a long-term solution,” German said.
He wants the state to investigate other options such as mass transit, whether it’s more trains or bus rapid transit that may appeal to commuters.
Hogan later announced a multi-agency work group that will look at how transit agencies could benefit from the toll lanes, such as running buses on them.
The state has already awarded the toll lanes project a perfect score of 500 on its ranking system for proposed transportation projects, while panning mass transit ideas.
Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter, questioned whether the state’s promises of free congestion relief will pan out.
“If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.
Tulkin said transportation officials haven’t looked at the project’s impact on vehicle emissions that are the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Widened roads tend to attract more cars, releasing more emissions.
Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker, a Democrat, hosted a community meeting to discuss the project on a rainy Sunday last month, drawing at least 700 people. He said the turnout shows “the extremely high level of public concern about this.”
Hogan went on social media during that meeting to deride toll plan opponents.
“Instead of supporting these plans to get you moving, pro-traffic activists held a road kill rally to halt our plans to solve the congestion crisis,” the governor wrote.
“He decided to spend his Sunday, instead of attending and engaging people, insulting residents and saying that — calling people ‘pro-traffic activists’ and they are plotting to keep people stuck in traffic,” Hucker said. “It’s so demeaning and insulting to Montgomery County and Prince George’s County residents who were there.”
Elrich, the Montgomery County executive, said neither elected officials nor citizens have really been listened to.
“It’s not a conversation,” he said. “You say what you think, and they say what they’re going to do.”
The Prince George’s County Council, meanwhile, approved a resolution asking the Board of Public Works not to allow the project to move forward. In a letter, Council Chairman Todd Turner said the project “lacks sufficient safeguards to protect the state and our residents to be approved at this time.”
Others are frustrated that state officials previously said no one would lose their homes for the project, which isn’t the case.
“Nobody’s houses are going to be taken,” Hogan said in a video captured by Montgomery Community Media last fall.
Recently released maps, however, show up to a few dozen homes and a handful of businesses would need to be demolished, and hundreds of residents would lose parts of their yards, to accommodate the highway widening.
Despite those concerns, there remains support for the toll lanes project.
A recent poll by The Washington Post and George Washington University found 61 percent of poll respondents in Montgomery County favored the plan. The plan had 48 percent support in Prince George’s County.
Several business trade groups and large employers have written in support of the project, as did the editorial board of The Washington Post.
John B. Townsend II of AAA Mid-Atlantic wrote that the public-private partnership is a good way to accomplish a “crucial” transportation project.
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“Priced managed lanes on I-495 and I-270 will solve major congestion challenges felt acutely by commuters and businesses across suburban Maryland,” he wrote.
Rahn said his agency is listening to concerns that have been raised, but believes that most people support the toll lanes.
“I’m absolutely convinced that a majority of residents of Montgomery County support the idea of needing additional capacity on 270 and 495,” Rahn said.
The Board of Public Works — comprised of Hogan, Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot and Democratic Treasurer Nancy Kopp — will vote whether to move the project forward at Wednesday’s meeting by allowing the state to certify companies to bid on the project.
As the meeting approaches, an online petition asking the board to vote against it has garnered more than 3,700 signatures, while Hogan’s team has been busy on social media, posting messages headlined “traffic facts” that support the toll lanes.
Kopp has said she has serious questions about the plans.
Franchot is studying the proposal and, according to his spokeswoman Susan O’Brien, he anticipates “a long, detailed discussion when it comes before the Board of Public Works.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the Maryland Transportation Authority will set prices of the toll lanes and to clarify the focus of a transit work group.