State panel questions ‘consent’ bill tied to 270/495 toll proposal

State panel questions ‘consent’ bill tied to 270/495 toll proposal

Future of Lee’s bill still unclear

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Lee

State Sen. Susan Lee

Photo courtesy of the Maryland Senate

A bill that would give counties more control over major state infrastructure projects was heard in Annapolis on Wednesday.

State Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Randallstown) said she appreciated the intent, but the legislation lacks the legal specificity to make it enforceable.

Kelley urged the bill’s sponsor — Montgomery County Sen. Susan Lee — to spend a year revising the language.

Lee announced the bill in September as part of a wave of legislation aimed at limiting Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed I-270/295 toll lane plan.

The bill — first introduced in 2019 by Sen. Will Smith (D-Silver Spring) — would prevent state agencies from constructing toll roads or bridges without the consent of the majority of counties affected by the project.

Wednesday’s feedback leaves the future of the legislation — which Lee (D-Bethesda) described as “one of the most important bills of the session” — uncertain. Multiple committee members questioned the underlying logic of letting counties veto major state construction projects.

“We all need to be honest with ourselves,” Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Wheaton) said during the hearing. “The fact that we have a state agency that’s detached from voters can facilitate getting these kinds of projects passed.”

Kramer was referring to the state’s Board of Public Works, a three-member committee currently chaired by Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

The board has final approval power over major public works projects, including the toll lane plan.

In January, Hogan and Franchot voted to advance the next phase of the lanes project, starting with the American Legion Bridge and the southern section of I-270.

Supporters of the bill argue that the board has overly broad power to approve major infrastructure projects without collaborating with the communities most affected by the plans.

Montgomery County officials have long been frustrated with a perceived lack of communication from the Maryland Department of Transportation, even threatening to sue the state after a particularly contentious meeting.

While state officials used to be willing to collaborate with county legislators, “that tradition has withered to insignificance,” said former Charles County Commissioner Gary Hodge, who testified in favor of the bill.

He, like Lee, pointed out that the General Assembly previously passed a bill that gave the same veto power to nine counties on Maryland’s Eastern shore. Montgomery County Council Vice President Tom Hucker, who also spoke in favor of the bill, said it would be unfair not to extend the same right to the rest of the state.

“Why in the world shouldn’t the two biggest counties in the state have a say over a toll road that would affect two million residents?” Hucker, a former state delegate, said, referring to Montgomery and Prince George’s. “This bill would require [the state] to negotiate and seek approval from us, and that’s something I think common sense says we should all agree on.”

But Sens. Kramer and Stephen Hershey Jr. (R-Queenstown) said the bill was an overly broad effort to achieve better communication.

Kramer argued that a a few resistant representatives could stall or delay important infrastructure projects, though the bill does not specify how counties would give their consent for the projects. He specifically cited current Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, saying that the Intercounty Connector — now touted as a possible alternative to toll lanes in the county — would never have been built under his administration.

Kelley was more concerned with the specifics of the bill itself, which amends an existing law with a single sentence. Lee’s legislation stipulates that “a State agency… may not construct any toll road, toll highway, or toll bridge without the express consent of a majority of the governments of the affected counties.”

Lee said that Maryland’s Attorney General issued guidance on the bill last year, defining “affected counties” as any jurisdictions where the infrastructure was constructed. But Kelley said it wasn’t a “legal term,” arguing that adjoining counties could also be “affected” by the projects.

“Frederick, Howard, Carroll — all of those counties would be affected if the [toll lane project] went through, positively or negatively,” Hershey added. He argued that the bill should set a more specific timeline for when local jurisdictions were expected to weigh in on an infrastructure project.

While Kelley said the legislation was a “great idea,” she remained unpersuaded it was ready to move forward.

“Literally, the bill isn’t ready for prime time,” she said, frustrated as the hearing ran over time and more residents lined up to testify.

Lee did not immediately return a call for comment later on Wednesday on whether she planned to draft amendments to the bill this year. The legislation was cross-filed in the House of Representatives, where it is scheduled for a hearing on Feb. 13.

Del. Sara Love (D-Bethesda) and Del. Jared Solomon (D-Chevy Chase) also announced bills in December related to the toll lane proposal. Solomon’s bill was aimed at having greater oversight over the state’s public-private partnership process. It had not been filed as of Wednesday.

Love’s bills, which would prohibit the state from acquiring residential property during lane construction, is scheduled for a hearing in the House Environment and Transportation committee on Feb. 11.

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