2019 | Transportation

County Council Puts State Transportation Chief on Hot Seat Over Toll Road Plans

$9 billion plan for toll roads, extra lanes on Montgomery highways brings sharp questions

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Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn

Maryland’s transportation secretary says without a proposed public-private partnership to add toll lanes to the Beltway and Interstate 270, $1.7 billion would be needed to make repairs on the roads  — money the state doesn’t have.

“We need to come up with $1.7 billion to do those repairs,” said Secretary Pete Rahn during a Tuesday meeting with the Montgomery County Council, where he faced pointed questioning. “If we do this program we wouldn’t have that expense, because those would all be replaced as part of the [project].”

A $9 billion plan to add toll lanes, proposed almost two years ago by Gov. Larry Hogan, would use a public-private partnership model in which the state would use private contractors to perform construction work and manage the toll roads in exchange for a portion of toll revenues.

State transportation officials recently announced that the project would be completed in segments, with the first segment between the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River at Cabin John and the I-270 spur in Bethesda. The segment between I-270 from upper Montgomery County to Frederick would come at a later stage.

County officials last week urged Rahn to reconsider the proposal.

Rahn, who gave a presentation to the council Tuesday, said not enough cars travel the stretch between the I-270 in Gaithersburg and Frederick to generate enough of toll revenue to cover the cost of construction.

Rahn said he had no concerns about funding Hogan’s plan because the private sector is doing the construction, and most of the money will come from toll revenue under long-term contracts.

At-large council member Will Jawando, however, wasn’t convinced, telling Rahn that he lives near the Intercounty Connector’s interchange with New Hampshire Avenue near Colesville.

“I take it [the ICC] to get places more quickly, and since it’s been built, I have never seen it crowded,” he said.

The ICC is a toll road linking I-95 in Laurel with I-370 in Gaithersburg.

Jawando said he worries that toll roads discriminate against the poor because only drivers who can afford to use the faster lanes will do so.

Rahn acknowledged that the use of the toll lanes was “a matter of personal choice” but said the lanes were still necessary.

“If we don’t build these, the traffic is still coming,” he said.

At-large council member Hans Riemer and others said they were concerned that public transit options were not taken into consideration when crafting the plan.

Riemer said bus rapid transit might cost “hundreds of millions” but would shave commute time from Shady Grove to Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia to a half hour. Virginia, he said, has such a transit service that operates on its stretch of the Beltway with toll lanes.

Rahn said unlike the Virginia Department of Transportation, Maryland does not have the money to subsidize a bus rapid transit system to operate in the toll lanes.

“Any proposed addition that makes the project financially unviable and could not be incorporated into it,” Rahn said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com