Updated: Bill to bar acquisition of residences to build Beltway toll lanes heard in Annapolis

Updated: Bill to bar acquisition of residences to build Beltway toll lanes heard in Annapolis

Sponsor says ‘a little early to say’ whether legislation will progress this year

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270-resized

Traffic on Interstate 270

File photo

This story was updated at 5 p.m. Feb. 12, 2020, to include a statement from the Maryland Department of Transportation. It was updated again at 5:35 p.m. Feb. 14, 2020, to include additional comments from the department.

One of several bills aimed at forcing changes in Gov. Larry Hogan’s I-495/I-270 widening project was heard Tuesday in Annapolis. How much further the measure will progress during this year’s General Assembly session remains highly uncertain.

The House Environment and Transportation Committee heard testimony on a bill to prohibit state acquisition of residential property to add toll lanes to I-270 and I-495 as part of a public-private partnership (P3), such as Hogan has proposed.

The bill was sponsored by Del. Sara Love of Bethesda and co-sponsored by 13 of her colleagues in Montgomery County’s 24-member House delegation.

Love introduced a similar bill last year, but it failed to advance beyond the hearing stage.

In an interview after Tuesday’s session, she termed it “a little early to say” whether the measure would gain more traction this year. “I was told last year that one of the things that the [Hogan] administration asked of [the General Assembly] leadership was to not pass this bill,” Love said. “So I don’t know where things stand this year.”

One hurdle this year is that more than a month into the legislative session — with the deadline for introduction of bills passed — a companion bill to Love’s has not been introduced in the Maryland Senate. In 2019, Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher of Kensington put forth a measure similar to Love’s that failed to make it out of a Senate committee.

Waldstreicher indicated Tuesday that he had decided not to introduce such legislation this year due to new responsibilities as vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“I continue to support Del. Love’s bill and will definitely vote for it should it come over to the Senate side,” Waldstreicher said in a phone interview, adding, “My new role on the Judicial Proceedings Committee requires me to focus more time on areas of jurisdiction within that committee.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Love and other proponents of her bill contended that the Hogan administration’s failure to live up to past promises made the legislation necessary.

“In 2018, the governor told us ‘Not a single house is ever going to be taken down,’” Love told the committee, alluding to comments Hogan made during a Labor Day parade in Kensington that year. “Soon thereafter, then-[Maryland Department of Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Rahn told us, ‘We will not be taking homes.’

“In 2019, they started to walk back those statements … and recently, acting Secretary [Greg] Slater came out with it and said, ‘Yes, there are about 34 homes that are on target for being taken.’”

Among those testifying in favor of Love’s bill was Barbara Coufal of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, a Silver Spring-based advocacy group, who pointed to recent letters from the State Highway Administration to 3,700 residents along I-495 and I-270.

The letters sought access to properties owned by these residents for surveying. “The large number of letters raises concerns that the number of homes at risk may be more than 34,” Coufal said. “This bill would be a check on an administration that has made false promises.”

She added, “The promise that no homes would be taken to make way for the toll lanes was taken in good faith by voters in Montgomery and Prince George’s County before the 2018 election. That promise was broken.”

But John Kane of Citizens for Traffic Relief, a coalition of business groups that supports Hogan’s P3 proposal, later took sharp issue with Coufal’s remarks in testifying against Love’s bill.

“Some of the groups that testified have never been on board and never supported the traffic relief plan. So to make the argument since… the election they feel like they’ve been hoodwinked is somewhat a farce,” asserted Kane, a former chair of the Maryland Republican Party.

Meanwhile, an analysis of Love’s bill — a so-called “fiscal note” — suggested her legislation, if passed, could derail Hogan’s plan to utilize the P3 option to build and finance the I-495/I-270 widening  Fiscal notes are prepared by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, the General Assembly’s in-house legislative analyst.

“…The State’s current traffic relief plan may be difficult or impossible to implement under the bill,” according to the fiscal note analyzing Love’s bill. The analysis continued: “The bill’s constraints may lead to significantly higher risks for any contractor or partner that works with the state on the project. … Moreover, the increased risk may make it impossible to find a private partner for the P3, which may make the project infeasible.”

Hogan administration officials have repeatedly contended that the state does not have the funding to expand I-495 and I-270 without going the P3 route.

Love denied after the hearing that the intent of her bill was to block a P3 project. “We want traffic relief, and we in Montgomery County have wanted that for 20 years,” she said in an interview. “So that is absolutely not my intention.”

Echoing criticisms by county officials that the Hogan plan, as now proposed, is lacking a mass transit component, Love said, “What we want is a comprehensive solution that’s a multi-modal solution.”

Love also pointed to the language of the fiscal note, which she contended had hedged with regard to the impact of her legislation on the I-495/I-270 project.

“It was very interesting that the fiscal note used ‘may.’ It didn’t say ‘it will,’” she said. “Clearly, [the Department of Legislative Services] talked to the Maryland Department of Transportation. And if MDOT thought it would kill the project, I believe the fiscal note would have said ‘it will.’”

“So what this would do is not kill the project,” Love said of her proposal. “What it may do is have them look again at different alternatives — and have them look again at ‘OK, can we use some combination of roads and transit to do the relief that is needed’ without absolutely saying, ‘We’re going to do two toll lanes in both directions, and we’re taking houses.’”

However, in a letter dated Tuesday and addressed to the the House Environment and Transportation Committee, MDOT stated its opposition to Love’s bill while declaring, “Without the ability to undertake any fee simple land acquisition, [the bill] would prevent the state’s ability to deliver this project.” In a separate statement forwarded to Bethesda Beat Wednesday afternoon, MDOT noted, “As required by the Maryland Board of Public Works, MDOT will not acquire any property prior to the final BPW approval of the P3 agreement.”

The statement noted that the planning for the first phase of the P3 program is proceeding as a result of action by the Board of Public Works in January, with that phase  encompassing I-495 from the George Washington Memorial Parkway to the so-called western spur of I-270, and then north on I-270 to I-370. “This portion requires no residential relocations,” the statement said.

Alluding to future phases of the project, involving sections of I-495 where the 34 residential properties previously identified for possible acquisition and demolition are, the statement declared: “As the process moves forward, MDOT [State Highway Administration’s] selection process will incentivize the private sector to propose innovative solutions that will provide the most minimal impact and disruption to properties. The selection process also will consider how the private sector developer proposes to work collaboratively with communities and local stakeholders to further minimize property impacts.”

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