The Maryland Board of Public Works voted 2-1 Wednesday to move forward with Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed addition of toll lanes to Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Frederick counties by formally designating the project as a public-private partnership.
The board decided to delay the governor’s proposed toll-lane additions to the Beltway in Montgomery County for more study and evaluation.
Hogan’s proposed project of more than $9 billion uses a so-called P3 model, in which the state contracts with private companies to build the lanes, and revenue from tolls is used to repay the debt incurred by construction costs.
Wednesday’s vote means that companies will be able to begin submitting bids on the I-270 portion of the project. The board also voted to allocate 10% of the state’s toll revenue toward exploring public transit options, and agreed to conduct a feasibility study of a monorail linking Shady Grove and Frederick.
The board, composed of Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, is responsible for approving funds for major construction projects as well as procurement policies, among other duties.
Kopp voted “no” on the proposal Wednesday.
The board’s vote came after several days of protest from elected officials Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, who had asked that the governor evaluate each of the phases of the project individually, and look at the possibility of pursuing transit alternatives.
Hogan had previously said widening the Beltway from the I-270 spur to the interchange with I-95 in Prince George’s County, as well as widening the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River, would occur first. Montgomery officials had requested a delay in this phase.
“Reluctantly, we will agree to that delay, and move forward with improvements to I-270 as phase one,” Hogan said. “There’s still plenty of time to address many of the concerns that we didn’t address today.”
Kopp voted “no,” largely out of confusion over the fact that the American Legion Bridge improvements were not part of the I-270 phase.
Franchot said County Executive Marc Elrich called him Wednesday at a “odd awful early hour and went into great length with his views about the situation,” telling the comptroller that he wanted I-270 and the American Legion Bridge to both be priorities.
Before to the vote, Elrich had a testy exchange with with the Republican governor, arguing that Montgomery officials had largely been left out of the process in moving forward with the project.
“We were not a part of this process. You did a press conference and announced what you were going do before you talked to anybody,” Elrich said.
Hogan responded that the news conference occurred two years ago when former County Executive Isiah Leggett was present.
“I didn’t know who you were,” Hogan said.
Some from upper Montgomery, such as Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce President Marilyn Balcombe, had previously said they wanted the board to vote “yes” Wednesday to bring traffic relief on I-270 sooner rather than later.
“My preference would have been that we started with I-270, because the significant opposition to the project is more about I-270 south of I-370 [in Gaithersburg] and on I-495,” said Balcombe, who was attending a Tuesday dinner held by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
Jennifer Russel, a planning and transportation consultant who is running for a seat on the county’s planning board, attended the same event Tuesday, and said any delay in the project will incur a cost.
“Estimates are [a cost of] $300 million if you delay it a year. And the people in upcounty are not being well-represented,” she said.
Members of the Montgomery County Council and the county’s House delegation to the state legislature have been less enthusiastic about moving forward with Hogan’s plan.
Del. Marc Korman, a Bethesda Democrat who chairs the 24-member Montgomery House delegation, said Tuesday the Beltway and I-270 phases need to be decoupled.
“What we’re [in the delegation] saying is don’t just break up the contracts. Really segment the project, and start with the northern portion of I-270 that needs to be right-sized,” he said.
Also among the attendees at Tuesday chamber dinner was Del. David Moon, a Takoma Park Democrat, who said that he thinks the governor’s plan may end up in litigation, just as the 16-mile Purple Line light rail project did a few years ago. Wednesday’s vote, he said, is likely “just the beginning of the story.”
“I understand that people who might be bidding for these contracts might be spoofed by the political debate that’s going on … it remains to be seen whether there are going to be serious contractors, especially with a change in [governor] administration happening in a couple of years,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org