Franchot Says Lane-Widening Vote Could Wait Until after Christmas

Franchot Says Lane-Widening Vote Could Wait Until after Christmas

Changes to 270/495 plan would have major consequences for Montgomery County

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Comptroller Peter Franchot

File Photo

A critical vote on expanding I-270 and the Capital Beltway could wait until after Christmas, Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot said Thursday.

It’s the latest uncertainty in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to speed up the addition of toll lanes along the roads.

Before Thanksgiving, Hogan requested the state’s three-member Board of Public Works — himself, Franchot and Democratic state Treasurer Nancy Kopp — to consider substantial amendments to an earlier plan the board approved in June.

The board was scheduled to vote on the amendments Wednesday, but Franchot requested a last-minute extension to allow “additional time for critical review, questions and input,” he wrote in a Facebook post on Monday.

The item was anticipated to reappear on the board’s Dec. 18 agenda — its final meeting before the holidays. But Franchot is doubling down on calls to delay the vote for another one or two meetings, given the extent of the changes and public outcry over the process.

“If the public gets access to a clear understanding of what the current proposal is, that would satisfy me and we could examine what — if anything — gets approved at the next meeting,” Franchot said in an interview on Thursday. “But I’m also saying this is such an important project, and there’s so much skepticism on both sides, that it might be longer than a two-week delay. It might be a four-week delay.”

Franchot’s collaboration is thought to be critical for Hogan to pass the amendments. Kopp, who was appointed by the Maryland General Assembly, voted against lane-widening in June when the board first considered Hogan’s proposal.

Franchot, often a swing vote on the board, approved the plan with a few key revisions. Hogan agreed to limit the first phase of lane-widening to the southern section of I-270, which he then said would allow more time for the state to collaborate with local leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Franchot also secured a promise to allocate 10% of the state’s share of toll revenue — after the project is paid off — to mass transit in both counties.

Montgomery County leaders have been widely skeptical of the plan, including its lack of public transit options. Tensions increased further after the Maryland Department of Transportation withdrew support for the Corridor Cities Transitway, a long-promised bus rapid transit route in the western part of the county.

On Thursday, Franchot said he requested the delay partly due to concerns from local leaders and partly out of his own desire to review revisions to the plan.

The amendments would have a major impact on Montgomery County in three main ways:

• Expediting expansion of the Beltway

Under the new plan, the state would solicit bids for toll lanes along southern I-270 and I-495 to the American Legion Bridge at the same time. That would scrap an earlier agreement to limit the first phase of expansion to I-270.

Hogan first announced the plan at a joint press conference with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in early November. The two leaders announced that both states would collaborate on a plan to add toll lanes to the bridge.

In an earlier interview, MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson confirmed that expanding the Beltway in both directions would be bid to concessionaires as a single package. Doing so would streamline the process and ensure that the entire highway system was considered holistically, she said in November.

But it would speed up expansion of northern I-495 up to the junction with I-95 in Prince George’s County. That part of the plan has been a major concern to Montgomery County leaders and residents, who worry about the loss of homes and parkland along the narrow stretch of highway.

• Buying homes along the highway

Another amendment would allow the state to purchase homes in the expansion corridor as they come up for sale, without waiting for a final environmental impact study.

The revision would likely affect homes along I-495 and anger local officials and environmental advocates, who have accused the state of moving forward without adequately considering the ecological ramifications of the plans.

• Amending the toll revenue agreement

One of Franchot’s biggest concerns, he said, is a change to the previous agreement to share 10% of toll revenue with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The state is instead recommending a “Secretary’s Grant Program” to distribute future funding for local transit projects. The program would also include Frederick County, according to an amendment included in the Board of Works’ Dec. 4 agenda.

There is no further description of what the grant program would entail or whether it would retain the same 10% revenue commitment. On Thursday, Franchot said he had no additional information about the program.

Franchot emphasized that he did not believe Hogan or the Maryland Department of Transportation were deliberately withholding information on the plan. But the process has been widely criticized by members of the Maryland General Assembly, who released a joint letter on Monday — signed by 69 delegates and 15 senators — questioning the rollout of the amendments.

“MDOT is well aware of the controversial nature of the project and the wide array of concerns that have been expressed, including particular concerns relevant to the BPW,” it reads. “… Yet despite all of those questions and concerns, MDOT chose to release [amendments] on the Friday before Thanksgiving and seeks its approval the Wednesday after.”

In a statement on Thursday, Montgomery Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson said local officials had not been briefed on the proposed changes.

In November, he suggested suing the state after a contentious meeting between MDOT officials and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Commissioners have twice rejected the state’s five final lane-widening alternatives and criticized MDOT for failing to release certain information, including its rationale for rejecting certain alternatives and estimates of fees along the new toll lanes.

It’s still unclear how the delayed vote will affect the bidding process for the proposed toll lanes. A suggested timeline in the Dec. 4 agenda suggested that the state would seek approval from the Board of Public Works on Dec. 4 and release a request for quotations to concessionaires on Dec. 10.

Hogan’s administration released a statement on the delayed vote on Friday morning through spokesman Mike Ricci:

“Earlier this week, the Comptroller requested that the Board consider [the] item on December 18,” it reads. “The Comptroller himself has said that we are in a ‘congestion crisis’ and the consequences of inaction are ‘devastating,’ so right now we’re going through and addressing his questions, and we will certainly continue to do so.”

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