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Don't rubber stamp Hogan's toll plan, Mr. Comptroller

Don't rubber stamp Hogan's toll plan, Mr. Comptroller
Interstate 270 near Montrose Road, a traffic-congested Montgomery County highway potentially destined for costly new toll lanes under a plan promoted by Gov. Larry Hogan. (Maryland SHA)

Dear Comptroller Peter Franchot,

Let’s face it, we’ve not always seen things eye-to-eye. Your pronouncements about temporary air conditioning units in classrooms (particularly in city schools, which have far worse problems than the setting on the thermostat), your misguided efforts to have the state mandate when public schools should open their doors each year (chiefly for the sake of Ocean City), and your general grandstanding at Board of Public Works meetings and gadfly hectoring of state lawmakers have drawn our ire from time to time. But the moment has finally arrived when your populist tendencies, your desire to be at the center of decision-making and, yes, even your need to assert your independence against the “Annapolis Machine” could actually come in handy.

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Mr. Franchot, stop the runaway plan to let one or more private companies build and operate so-called “Lexus Lanes” on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Your vote at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting could spell the difference between that plan being forced on communities that oppose it and a more carefully crafted compromise from being negotiated by state and local officials. We’re not asking you to kill it. We’re asking you to send it back to the Maryland Department of Transportation with the expectation that the concerns of elected officials and community leaders be addressed before any companies are authorized to bid.

That will, of course, require you to sort through a lot of misinformation that’s been floating around. Gov. Larry Hogan and Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn have worked pretty hard to develop what’s known as a P3 or public-private partnership proposal to build those toll lanes. They believe they’ve already jumped through a lot of hoops, held public meetings, studied the matter closely and so forth. But what they have not done to date is garner much local political support. Both Prince George’s and Montgomery’s councils oppose the plan, and so does Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks isn’t exactly a cheerleader either. And you can forget claims that average people want it. Most aren’t aware of the project’s downsides like tolls that could reach nearby Interstate 66 standards (surpassing $40-plus during peak congestion), or the degree to which average commuters might not be helped all that much, or how state taxpayers may be on the hook if the project isn’t sufficiently profitable.

Of course, some detractors may well be foolishly ignoring congestion woes on both those highways. Make no mistake, traffic is bad. But as a Montgomery County resident yourself, you know that. This is one thing everyone can agree on — something needs to be done. We’re not inherently opposed to P3s or to adding toll lanes to existing roads, but is that really so clearly the one and only possible answer in this situation that it demands overriding the will of local leaders in the area you’re supposed to be helping?

Democrats like to talk in generalities about climate change and the need to reduce the carbon footprint. They talk about investing more in transit or making commutes more friendly for walking or bicycling. But if they are really serious about changing transportation habits, they can’t just gravitate toward highway expansions. That’s a 20th century solution. It takes real political courage to say no — or at least say “less.” Do you have that, or is your brand of populism reserved for craft beer boosterism or holding back state investments from Red States that pass “heartbeat” bills that would deny women the right to choose and violate the Constitution?

Now put yourself in Baltimore’s shoes. Our elected officials overcame all sorts of obstacles to promote the Red Line. We agreed to raise the gas tax. We got city and suburban elected officials to endorse it (not easily, by the way). And then Governor Hogan decided on his own to cancel that $2.9 billion project, sending close to $1 billion of promised federal aid back to Washington. We look at suburban D.C. and see a project that elected officials don’t want (including the vast majority of state lawmakers from the region), yet the same administration is ready to start the bulldozers and drop the Jersey barriers. Enough is enough.

Mr. Hogan has made quite a bit of noise on the national stage in recent months as a bipartisan kind of fellow. What a terrific time for him to demonstrate it. Unfortunately, he won’t get that opportunity unless you and Treasurer Nancy Kopp send his signature project back to the drawing board. It’s not an easy vote. You and the governor have clearly become great allies and friends. But it’s what someone holding statewide office who is serious about the best interests of the state would do. It’s not obstruction when it merely forces Annapolis to compromise — as happened with the Purple Line, the Intercounty Connector and frankly, most of this state’s major transportation projects of the past. It’s more like common sense.

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