Maryland’s Board of Public Works approved the state’s use of private companies to widen highways in the Washington suburbs, but agreed to delay work on the Capital Beltway after running into opposition.
The vote came during a lengthy and tense meeting Wednesday on Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to enlist the private sector to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. The private contractors would recoup their investment through tolls charged on drivers who use the new lanes.
The Hogan administration has sold the plan — known as a “public-private partnership” or P3 — as a way to alleviate traffic congestion without relying on taxpayer dollars.
The first phase of the $11 billion project was supposed to be along the Capital Beltway from the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River around to Interstate 95. But Hogan proposed delaying that part of the project and instead proceeding first with adding toll lanes to Interstate 270, which connects the Beltway and Frederick. Widening the Beltway in Prince George’s County would come last.
Hogan said he proposed the switch “reluctantly.” The other two Board of Public Works members split on the governor’s proposal, with Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot voting with the governor and Democratic Treasurer Nancy Kopp opposed.
Kopp said she wasn’t clear on the details of the switch and that she still has broad concerns about whether privately-built toll lanes are the right solution to traffic congestion.
“Can we see in writing what was voted on?” Kopp asked after the 2-1 vote was taken.
Kopp said in an interview that she still has unanswered questions about many of the financial and environmental implications of the project.
“I hope there will be a great deal more sunshine,” she said.
Franchot added conditions for the toll lanes project to move forward, including allowing transit buses to ride for free on the new lanes, reserving part of the state’s portion of the toll money for local transit projects, studying the feasibility of building a monorail line along Interstate 270 and not allowing the state to buy any properties for the projects until a final agreement with a contractor is approved.
Franchot said in an interview that switching the order of the project will give the state an opportunity to consider some of the concerns raised by residents and elected officials in Montgomery County.
“There’s now time for a lot more collaboration,” Franchot said. “But they have to drop the politics.”
Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker, who has raised concerns about the toll lanes, said the change in the order of the project represents a “breakthrough.”
“I’m grateful they’re accommodating us for the first time,” said Hucker, a Democrat. “I feel like we’re actually going to sit down like grown-ups and talk.”
Hucker has been among those in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who have complained that state officials haven’t listened to their concerns. Some have proposed improving mass transit or undertaking less-expensive projects — such as adding reversible lanes or fixing interchanges — as an alternative to the toll lanes.
Wednesday’s vote technically certified the entire proposal as a public-private partnership, which is required under state law. The Maryland Department of Transportation can move forward now with vetting companies that will be allowed to bid on the project.
The Board of Public Works still will need to approve contracts with the private companies that would build each phase of the project.
The board’s vote came at the end of more than two hours of discussion on the proposed project.
At times, Hogan was combative with people who spoke against the plan, including Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who said his county has been left out of the planning process.
“I want to work with you. I said over and over again, ‘We want to work with you,’” Elrich, a Democrat, told the Republican governor.
Hogan shot back that he didn’t even know who Elrich was when the project was first announced in 2017. Elrich was a Montgomery County Council member at the time.
Josh Tulkin of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter challenged Hogan’s assertion on social media that opponents of the toll lanes are “pro-traffic activists.” Tulkin said that kind of rhetoric does not inspire trust among the public that the process is open and transparent.
In the middle of opponents testifying against the plan, Hogan called up state transportation and environment officials to further defend the project.
Hogan also spent time during the meeting dismissing what he said is “misinformation” being pushed by opponents of the project.
Hogan said Montgomery County residents have said traffic is their top problem, and the toll lanes proposal is a creative way to solve the issue without using significant tax dollars.
“This plan will finally begin to address the number one concern of the citizens,” Hogan said.
He noted that no driver will be forced to pay tolls.
“No tolls will be charged for any current lanes on either I-270 or 495,” Hogan said. “What is currently free will continue to always remain free. Only additional new and optional express lanes built at no cost to the taxpayers will be tolled.”
Hogan also shot down arguments that his administration hasn’t seriously considered mass transit as a way to relieve traffic. The governor said he’s put more money into mass transit — primarily the east-west Purple Line under construction in the D.C. suburbs and financial support for the Washington Metro system — than any other Maryland governor.
Hogan did not mention that he killed the proposed east-west Red Line in Baltimore, including forgoing nearly $1 billion in assistance from the federal government for that project.
Nearly 20 people spoke in favor of the toll lanes proposal, including representatives of business groups and companies that do work on highway projects.
Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, said lives through the traffic challenges daily traveling between the two communities. She said Hogan’s plan is “the first real opportunity to address significant congestion.”
Aaron Tomarchio, a senior vice president of Tradepoint Atlantic in Baltimore County, said the toll lanes will help his development’s tenants who ship products throughout the region. Easing congestion through toll lanes will ensure “a reliable flow of goods between markets,” he said.
Before the vote, local politicians and advocates spoke out against the toll lanes plan at a news conference down the street from the State House in Annapolis. They wanted to see the project sent back to the Maryland Department of Transportation for more study.
Eliza Cava of the Audubon Naturalist Society raised concerns about the potential loss of parkland, including sensitive stream valleys, to make room for the widened highway lanes.
“This is not the right time, this is not the right place,” she said.
Ben Ross from the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition questioned whether the state’s motive is to help private companies, rather than commuters. He said he’s concerned that if the toll lanes don’t draw enough paying drivers to make the project financially viable for a private company, then taxpayers will be stuck bailing them out.
“In the fine print, it says the taxpayers will pay when it goes belly up,” he said.
But Greg Slater, head of the State Highway Administration, said during the meeting that the state would only have to pay the contractor if the state terminates the agreement.
Even if the contractor faces problems recouping its costs to build the toll lanes, he said, “we’re not on the hook in any way for that debt.”