For the second time in about two weeks, friends and foes of legislation to give counties effective veto power over toll roads and bridges crossed swords on Thursday in Annapolis.
A hearing before the House Environment and Transportation Committee was on legislation sponsored by Del. Mary Lehman (D-Prince George’s County). More than 50 of Lehman’s colleagues, including 17 members of Montgomery County’s 24-member House delegation, were cosponsors.
A companion bill sponsored by state Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda) received a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on Jan. 29.
The proposal would grant to all 23 counties in Maryland and Baltimore city the power to block construction of highways and bridges levying tolls unless a majority of counties affected by such projects gave their consent.
Lehman and other proponents asserted Thursday that the bill simply extended statewide the type of veto power the legislature gave nine Eastern Shore counties more than 40 years ago. One opponent of the bill contended the pending legislation would go further than the existing 1978 statute.
The bill, if enacted, could have an impact on proposals to construct a third bridge from Anne Arundel County across the Chesapeake Bay. But it was the debate over the merits of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan for public-private partnership (P3) to widen I-495 and I-270 that coursed through Thursday’s hearing, as supporters and opponents lobbed verbal grenades.
“On the toll lanes, the state is rushing into a secretive procurement that will leave taxpayers stuck with a bad deal,” declared Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which consists of labor and citizen groups. He said the legislation would place a “badly needed check” on state officials.
On the other side, Jennifer Russel, vice chair of the business-supported Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, said her group was “speaking for the beleaguered county residents in the Upcounty, who are confronted with I-270 masquerading as a parking lot about seven hours per day.”
Of Lehman’s legislation, Russel told the committee, “It’s unconscionable to fabricate bills such as these to stand in the way of a better future for your constituents.”
For her part, Lehman used her testimony to answer critics suggesting that her legislation represents a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality.
“I do very strongly take issue with people who characterize this bill as a NIMBY bill, that it is simply a tool to veto toll roads and bridges,” she said, adding, “If this is a NIMBY law, then every land use, zoning and siting law on the books in this state is a NIMBY law.”
Lehman said she “took on this legislation out of the deep conviction that county level input is imperative on projects as consequential as toll roads and bridges,” noting that toll lanes on I-495 and I-270 and a third Bay Bridge span “are multi-billion-dollar investments that will alter local communities and impact our residents’ quality of life for decades to come.”
Her comments bespoke the frustration in both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties at what is seen as the Hogan administration’s minimal consultation with local officials on the P3 project.
“Without county consent, there is not meaningful opportunity for dialogue between local lawmakers, residents and other stakeholders,” Lehman said. “Community dialogue and actual decision-making for toll roads and bridges in Maryland’s most populous counties cannot begin and end with the three members of the state Board of Public Works.”
Last month, the Board of Public Works voted 2-1 to proceed with the first phase of the 1-495/I-270 project, starting at the American Legion Bridge and extending to the western spur of I-270 and north to I-370. Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot supported the move. The board’s third member, state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, opposed it.
Bills similar to what Lehman and Lee proposed failed to make it out of committee in 2019. While proponents hope for votes on the proposal in this year’s General Assembly session, they face some significant political hurdles.
The Hogan administration has not minced words in opposing the legislation.
In a letter Thursday to House Environment and Transportation Committee Chair Kumar Barve (D-Rockville), the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) charged that Lehman’s bill “has the potential to irreparably damage Maryland’s reputation as a national leader in delivering innovative infrastructure projects.”
While noting that Virginia is “moving forward … by modernizing and extending their [highway] facilities to the Maryland border,” the MDOT letter contended, “If this legislation were to pass, it would signal to businesses and hard-working Maryland families that the economic, political, and neighborly environment is better across the Potomac.”
A letter with identical language was sent last month to Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) when Lee’s legislation was brought up for a hearing.
At that time, Kelley expressed skepticism about the bill, questioning whether its language was specific enough to be enforceable. While characterizing the proposal as a “great idea,” Kelley said, “Literally, the bill isn’t ready for prime time.”
At Thursday’s hearing, Barve appeared concerned that local officials could arbitrarily use the veto power in the bill.
“Let’s say a road were proposed between Montgomery and Frederick County,” he suggested, “[and] the people in Frederick County really wanted it, because they work in Montgomery County, but the people in Montgomery County really don’t. If this were to become law, the Montgomery County Council could just stop it right from the very beginning, and not negotiate.”
Barve added: “I guess what I’m asking is, So you think that it’s perfectly fine for a county to just say from the very beginning ‘we’re not interested in the conversation?’”
Lehman responded: “I appreciate and respect your question, but I think that a question like that does not necessarily give credit to county council and county commissions that are accountable to the people that elected them.”
Lehman, a member of the Prince George’s County Council before being elected to the House of Delegates in 2018, told Barve: “I can tell you some of the most intense and emotional and… in-depth debates in the Prince George’s County Council in my eight years were around land use and siting issues.
“I think that the people elected to make those decisions are going to be thoughtful and are going to be deliberative. And I don’t think it’s fair to think of this as an automatic veto mechanism.”
John Kane of Citizens for Traffic Relief, a coalition of business groups that supports Hogan’s P3 proposal, testified in opposition to the legislation, saying it was “not entirely accurate” to liken the bill to the statute currently in place for the nine Eastern Shore counties.
“The key difference is that the Eastern Shore law was approved to block a new, intrastate stand-alone toll highway the state was proposing to build” in the late 1970s, said Kane, a long-time Maryland businessman and former chair of the state Republican Party.
His group’s concern, he added, “is that the language in this bill is too broad, and effectively could block the state and federal agencies who are charged with planning and maintaining Maryland’s existing interstate [highway] system from carrying out their responsibilities.”
Kane also suggested it was “highly doubtful” that the legislation, if enacted, would be upheld in court in light of the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as “federal preemptions that have been in place for decades.”
But later in Thursday’s hearing, Kane found a bit of common ground with supporters of the local consent bill when he joined several of them in endorsing a separate piece of legislation proposed by Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Rockville).
As planning moves ahead for widening I-270, Palakovich Carr’s bill — backed by virtually the entire Montgomery County House delegation — would require MDOT to study and make recommendations on the feasibility of establishing a point-to-point commuter bus route connecting population centers along the I-270 corridor and job centers in Northern Virginia. The bill would require the study to be submitted by the end of 2021.