State Legislators Double Down on Efforts To Limit Toll-Lane Proposal

State Legislators Double Down on Efforts To Limit Toll-Lane Proposal

Bills would add oversight over highway expansion process

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Sen. Susan Lee, Del. Sara Love and Del. Jared Solomon

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State legislators in Montgomery County are doubling down on efforts to limit toll lanes along I-270 and the Capital Beltway.

Three Montgomery County state lawmakers plan to reintroduce bills that would curb Gov. Larry Hogan’s ability to widen both highways without significant input from local jurisdictions.

Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda) will submit legislation that would prevent state agencies from constructing toll roads or bridges without consent from the majority of counties affected by the project.

Del. Sara Love (D-Bethesda) plans to reintroduce a bill that would prohibit the state from buying residential properties as part of the lane-expansion plan.

And Del. Jared Solomon (D-Chevy Chase) will reintroduce legislation that would provide greater oversight over the state’s public-private partnership process.

Montgomery County officials have repeatedly opposed the toll-lane project, which Hogan first proposed in 2017.

Billed by the governor as the “the largest highway public-private partnership of its kind in the world,” the plan proposes adding four toll lanes along I-495 and I-270 from the Beltway to Frederick.

The Hogan administration has described the proposal as one of the only feasible solutions to congestion in the Washington, D.C., region. But the future of the plan has been in flux since Comptroller Peter Franchot — a critical vote on the state’s three-member Board of Public Works — indicated he would not move forward with a decision on the project without support from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Franchot’s lack of support has twice delayed a vote on amendments to the plan, which would significantly revise a version the board approved in June. The amended proposal would allow the state to solicit bids for toll lanes along both highways — not just southern I-270 — and purchase homes in the expansion corridor as they come up for sale.

A vote scheduled for Dec. 8 has been indefinitely delayed until after the new year. Local leaders are banking on Franchot’s ambivalence toward the amendments — coupled with increased public scrutiny of the project — to drum up political support for their bills.

During the 2019 session, only Solomon’s legislation passed the House of Delegates before dying in the Senate. The other two bills were “put in the drawer,” Love said — another way of saying they died in committee.

Lee and Solomon are optimistic that recent developments to the toll-lane proposal would highlight the need for more control over the process.

“I think the dynamics have changed,” Solomon said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “There are a lot of questions as to why the scope of the project changed so dramatically in five to six months. Just the level at which [the Maryland Department of Transportation] is changing the proposal shows there’s a greater need for legislative oversight.”

His bill would implement greater transparency in the state’s public-private partnership (P3) process by requiring an independent auditor or credit agency to assess the financial risk of a project.

The evaluation would include the private company’s credit rating, the potential impact of the project on the state’s credit rating, and a recommendation on the minimum credit rating the company should maintain for the duration of the project.

For the toll-lane proposal, Solomon said, concerns stemmed from the state’s repeated assurances that no taxpayer money would fund construction. Critics of the plan have pointed to underperforming toll projects in other states, driving skepticism that the new lanes wouldn’t require state subsidization.

Solomon said he’s also concerned about repeated objections from the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, which has threatened to withhold land or sue the state over a perceived lack of transparency.

“If we’re looking at 25 years of legal fights, where is that money going to come from?” he said. “I don’t think an immediate reform of the P3 process would be on anyone’s mind if this project wasn’t at the forefront.”

The bill would also mandate an environmental impact statement before any agreement could be signed. Solomon said he’s thinking of adding provisions that would give lawmakers more time to review a P3 project and add more legislative oversight before the Board of Public Works voted on a proposal.

The House and Senate budget committees currently have 45 days to review a project, with a possible 15-day extension on request. The Board of Public Works currently has final approval over P3 agreements submitted by the state.

Solomon’s legislation was more complex than the other two bills, but it also received broad partisan support in the House of Delegates. He speculated that was because his bill addressed the P3 process overall, which could provide benefits to other jurisdictions in the future.

Love’s bill specifically addressed the toll-lane project, while Lee’s bill — first introduced in 2019 by Sen. Will Smith — had the potential to derail the plan based on clear objections from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

That might have hurt its chances last session, when state lawmakers from outside the capital region were still widely uninformed on details of the proposal, said Ben Ross, who helped draft the bill as chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition.

“It was a big educational issue for the delegates last year,” he said. “So, this year — with the legislature more educated on the issue and the dangers of the current setup — we’re much more optimistic it can pass.”

But Del. Marc Korman, chair of the Montgomery County delegation, said it would still be challenging to garner bipartisan support for legislation that would delay or even end the toll-lane proposal.

While there’s widespread opposition to the plan among Democratic officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, many Republicans — especially in districts affected by congestion along I-270 — still strongly support the project.

Sen. Michael Hough, a Republican from Frederick County, described efforts to stall the toll lanes as “stupid pandering” from Montgomery officials.

“They’re just playing to their base,” he said. “Montgomery County drives me nuts. They’re the biggest hypocrites because they approve all this development right next to Frederick, then wave the Sierra Club flag when it comes to helping people who are stuck sitting in traffic.”

Hough said he would oppose any bill that provided more options for blocking the project. Republican Del. Jesse Pippy, another Frederick County lawmaker, was less explicit — but said he likely wouldn’t support efforts to defer the proposal.

“What I don’t want to do is participate in any legislation that’s going to further delay making further decisions,” he said. “There are people on those highways who have been waiting decades for a change.”

But with multiple changes to Senate leadership, Hough said, there was a significant chance that the bills could pass. Last year, most of the measures didn’t make it out of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which was chaired by Montgomery County Sen. Nancy King.

But King — whose district in northern Montgomery County is widely affected by traffic on I-270 — was recently replaced by Howard County Sen. Guy Guzzone. The General Assembly overall has moved further to the left in recent years, Hough said, which broadens support for Democratic legislation.

“I’m very worried these bills could pass,” he said. “I think this whole project is in danger. And if it doesn’t go through now, the problem might never get fixed.”

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