State panel approves 270/495 toll plan in split vote
Hogan, Franchot form majority favoring public-private project
Twenty-two speakers testified on Gov. Larry Hogan's plan to add toll lanes on I-270 and I-495 before the first phase of the project was approved by the state's Board of Public Works on Wednesday.
Photo by Kate Masters
Roughly a dozen protesters gathered outside the Maryland State House on Wednesday, hours before Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot voted to advance the next stage of a controversial plan to add toll lanes to I-270 and I-495.
Days earlier, Hogan and Franchot announced a “major bipartisan agreement” on the proposal, moving it to the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the Maryland Board of Public Works. The three-member panel — Hogan, Franchot, and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp — is the final vote of approval on major construction projects and public spending within the state.
The small group of opponents was a far cry from the hundreds who gathered in Silver Spring on a cold, rainy night in December to protest an earlier version of the toll lane plan, which would have expedited construction in Montgomery County and allowed the state to begin purchasing homes along the corridor.
The lack of opposition to Wednesday’s vote, particularly among Montgomery County officials, was a testament to the agreement Hogan and Franchot announced on Friday. It reversed most of the earlier changes and emphasized collaboration with local stakeholders, winning support from many of the project’s skeptics — including County Executive Marc Elrich.
Even Kopp — the lone vote against the proposal — couldn’t resist calling attention to the changes even as she vowed to vote against the project.
“I have never seen the word ‘consultation’ repeated in a document so many times,” Kopp quipped. A few minutes earlier, she congratulated Hogan on choosing Greg Slater, a longtime administrator for the Maryland Department of Transportation, to succeed outgoing Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn.
Slater was a “breath of fresh air,” Kopp said, and an encouraging sign that the administration could alleviate some of her outstanding concerns over the highway expansion plan.
The sunny meeting on the first day of the 2020 Maryland General Assembly session marked a turning point in Hogan’s long-contested effort to build new lanes along I-270 and I-495 — some of the most congested highways in the country, according to state transportation officials.
Montgomery County officials, who planned to present a front of opposition against earlier versions of the plan, were nowhere to be seen. In a Facebook post on Saturday, Council Member Tom Hucker, who organized the December rally in Silver Spring, applauded Franchot and Slater for “responding to all the feedback from the public.”
The approved plan didn’t satisfy some of the staunchest opponents of the toll lanes, including environmental groups and local officials from Rockville and Greenbelt. But it did include five major concessions to leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which Slater outlined at the meeting on Wednesday:
1) Returning to a phased implementation plan
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Hogan announced a major cost-sharing agreement with Virginia to rebuild and add toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge. Montgomery County officials said they were given no advance warning of the announcement, which removed a phased approach to the toll lane project that the Board of Public Works previously approved in June.
Under Hogan’s new proposal, the northeastern section of the Capital Beltway, through Montgomery County to the I-95 interchange in Prince George’s County, would be expanded at the same time as the southern section of I-270. The proposal was widely unpopular with local officials because it threatened to encroach on county- and federally owned parkland along the narrow section of highway.
The amended plan returns to a phased approach, giving the state more time to collaborate with local officials and consider alternatives to widening I-495 in Montgomery County. The first phase of the project, which the board approved on Wednesday, is limited to the American Legion Bridge and I-270 from I-495 to I-70.
After the meeting, Slater said construction of the first phase will proceed incrementally, starting with George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia, heading over the American Legion Bridge, and extending to the southern section of I-270.
Remaining phases of the project, including most of the Capital Beltway and the northern section of I-270 to Frederick County, will require additional approval by the board.
Slater said that construction on the first phase of the project is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2022 and last anywhere from three to five years.
2) No property acquisition before final approval of the project
The new plan prevents the state from acquiring residential properties along the expansion corridor until the Board of Public Works gives final approval to a public-private partnership agreement with a private concessionaire.
An earlier proposal would have allowed MDOT to begin purchasing homes as they came up for sale. It was a major concern to residents with homes near the Capital Beltway and to Montgomery County legislators.
Shortly after the amendment was released, Del. Sara Love (D-Bethesda) announced plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit the state from buying residential properties as part of the lane-expansion plan.
3) Free bus access on toll lanes
Hogan’s version of the toll lane proposal would have limited the types of buses allowed to drive on the new toll lanes. The approved plan will make it “clear,” according to a document from MDOT, that all publicly owned buses are allowed for free on the new toll lanes.
4) Public transit investment
One of the Hogan administration’s most controversial amendments was removing a revenue-sharing agreement with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The initial deal would have dedicated 10% of toll lane revenue to local transit projects once the project was fully paid off.
Before Thanksgiving, Hogan unveiled a new plan that replaced the revenue-sharing agreement with a “Secretary’s Grant Program” to distribute future transit funding. That particular amendment was one of the biggest reasons Franchot threatened to vote no on the proposal.
The new plan doesn’t restore the 10% commitment, but it allows each of the affected counties — Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Frederick — to enter an individual memorandum of understanding with the state and private concessionaire. Those MOUs will define “regional transit service improvements,” according to MDOT, and set out individual revenue-sharing agreements. Unlike the old plan, money will begin flowing to the counties as soon as the toll roads open, Slater said.
5) Require a monorail feasibility study
The state will be required to fund and complete a feasibility study for a proposed monorail that would run between Frederick and Montgomery counties. Democratic leaders in both counties have touted the monorail as a mass transit solution to congestion.
Slater’s assurances didn’t fully convince Kopp or some of the plan’s longest-standing opponents, who testified against the lanes before the final vote. Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton was the first to appear before the board, two days after city leaders sent the BPW a letter in a last-ditch effort to remove the plan from Wednesday’s agenda.
“You haven’t solved the problem for Rockville,” Donnell Newton told the board on Wednesday, describing the city as the most “critically affected municipality” by the plan. Her concerns largely echoed those cited by Kopp and other advocacy groups, who questioned the state’s transparency and decision to proceed without completing an environmental impact survey — part of a federally required approval process.
Local leaders have sharply criticized MDOT officials for refusing to share their own analyses of the toll lane plan, including rationales for eliminating certain lane alternatives and projected tolls along both highways.
Slater said after the meeting that the department simply didn’t have some of that information, including detailed toll projections. A draft environmental impact statement is expected to be released in the spring, but Slater — widely viewed as more collaborative than Rahn — said other state data may be released to local stakeholders within the next few days.
Wednesday’s vote allows the state to begin seeking bids from private concessionaires. A final bidder could be selected by May 2021, according to an updated schedule from the state.