Bills to put brakes on I-495/I-270 widening project stall as legislature adjourns

Bills to put brakes on I-495/I-270 widening project stall as legislature adjourns

Barve pessimistic over future of passing ‘P3’ measures, blasts state Senate

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kumar wide

Del. Kumar Barve

Photo from Maryland Manual

For the second year a row, legislation to place restraints on Gov. Larry Hogan’s effort to widen I-495 and I-270 has failed in the Maryland General Assembly.

This year, Del. Kumar Barve (D-Rockville), chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, pointed a finger at the leadership of the state Senate.

Separate bills authored by Barve and Dels. Marc Korman (D-Bethesda) and Jared Solomon (D-Silver Spring) would have placed conditions on Hogan’s effort to use a public-private partnership (P3) to finance, build and operate the project.

Barve’s committee approved the three bills and they cleared the House of Delegates by wide margins this week. But they were not taken up in the Senate, which, like the House, is overwhelmingly under Democratic control.

All three measures died when the General Assembly’s session ended Wednesday, three weeks early, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Barve expressed doubt that the outcome would have been different if this year’s session lasted through its originally scheduled adjournment date of April 6.

“I think we have to confront the fact that nobody in the Senate wants to move these bills. The Senate is unalterably opposed to regulating in any way the P3 landscape,” Barve said in a phone interview Thursday. He added, “I think that those who want to stop the P3 are just going to have to learn to live with the fact that the House has listened — and the Senate has not.”

“The top leadership of the Senate feels that the vast majority of the people in the Washington area support this project — and, for that reason, they don’t really care about any collateral effects,” Barve said.

He noted that the House in 2019 passed a version similar to Solomon’s bill, which sought to impose new procedural requirements and increased oversight on P3 projects. In the case of the I-495/I-270 P3 project, private firms would provide $9 billion to $11 billion in financing underwritten by revenues generated by new toll lanes.

“We got it to [the Senate] right on time, and they scheduled a public hearing for April 4” — four days prior to last year’s adjournment, Barve said of Solomon’s 2019 bill. “They might as well just have built a gigantic billboard with flashing lights around it saying, ‘We don’t want to pass this bill,’” he charged. “I suspect the same thing would have happened with [this year’s] bills.”

Solomon’s latest proposal, which the House passed this week 97-37, was designed in part to give the General Assembly more influence in determining the fate of P3 projects. That role is now largely reserved for the Board of Public Works, which consists of the governor, the state comptroller and the state treasurer.

The Barve-sponsored bill that cleared the House Tuesday 96-33 would have limited tolls on P3 roads and bridges to 10 cents per mile — unless the Board of Public Works authorized them to go higher.

“My bill in particular was a very reasonable thing, asking the Board of Public Works — elected officeholders — to have a final say in what the tolls would be,” he contended.

Korman’s so-called “promises” bill, passed 97-36, was an effort to codify assurances made by Hogan and Maryland Department of Transportation officials to Comptroller Peter Franchot in January. That’s when the Board of Public Works voted 2-1 to move ahead with planning on the first phase of the I-495/I-270 project.

That phase involves widening the American Legion Bridge, along with the western portion of I-495 and the southern portion of I-270 north to I-370.

Much of the controversy over the project has involved the portion of I-495 farther east through Bethesda and Silver Spring, due to the potential impact on both public park acreage and private property. Barve acknowledged that the House-Senate divide over the project involves “a bit of an upcounty-downcounty split.”

After passing the House, last year’s version of Solomon’s bill was bottled up by Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery Village), who at the time chaired the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

King represents an upcounty district with limited mass transit, where the widening of I-270 is popular among many residents. She has a potent ally from outside Montgomery County in Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert County), a supporter of Hogan’s P3 plan.

While not naming names, Barve declared: “Somebody big and important in the Senate is opposed to slowing down this project. Decisions like this aren’t made by committee chairs and subcommittee chairs by themselves: This goes all the way up to the top pay grade. It’s just a fact of life.”

King, now Senate majority leader, late last week reiterated her opposition to legislation seeking to place restraints on Hogan’s so-called “traffic relief plan” in the Washington area, telling Maryland Matters: “I look at these bills — I have to read them yet — but I don’t want to do anything that looks like it is stopping the flexibility and stopping the moving forward … and I just don’t want to see roadblocks put up.”

Barve told Bethesda Beat: “I myself am not opposed to improving traffic on I-270. I just don’t want to have my constituents be shaken down financially.”

He has expressed past concerns that tolls on the heavily trafficked lower portion of I-270 in his district will underwrite the cost of improving sections of that highway to the north.

He also suggested that improvements to I-270 could be achieved by the state without a P3. “I really think they are dismissing the possibility of reversible lanes and the possibility of widening lanes north of Gaithersburg, between Gaithersburg and Frederick,” he said of the Hogan administration.

If the Senate was resisting several P3 proposals being pushed by Barve, there were a couple of other P3-related bills that died in the Environment and Transportation Committee just prior to adjournment — due in large part to Barve’s opposition.

Legislation by Del. Mary Lehman (D-Prince George’s County) and Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda) to allow all counties in the state to veto toll roads and bridges that have a major impact on them — a power now enjoyed by nine counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — went down in Barve’s panel earlier this week by a 16-5 vote.

Among the five Montgomery County House members who serve on the Environment and Transportation Committee, only Del. Sara Love (D-Bethesda) backed the veto bill, which Barve earlier criticized as usurping the prerogatives of state government.

Dels. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Boyds), Jim Gilchrist (D-Rockville) and Vaughn Stewart (D-Derwood) joined Barve in voting against the bill.

A day earlier, Love — in the face of an unfavorable report by the committee — withdrew a bill that would have barred the state from acquiring residential real property for addition of toll lanes to I-495 or I-270. It was the second year in row she had sponsored the proposal.

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