2021 | Transportation

County Council urges state panel to postpone I-270/I-495 project votes

Elrich, council say board needs to conduct more financial oversight

share this
montgomery-county-logo

As the state’s Board of Public Works prepares on Wednesday to take key votes on a project to widen I-270 and I-495, county elected officials are asking for a postponement.

County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council sent separate letters calling on the board to wait for some financial oversight measures.

The Board of Public Works — made up of Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — approves large state contracts.

Elrich wrote in his letter that several elected officials and businesses understand that traffic congestion is a problem along I-270, but are concerned that:

  • State officials have not released an analysis of project impacts and benefits, especially based on how the overall project changed earlier this year.
  • A project financial analysis has not been completed to determine whether the state should give up its right-of-way for the work to widen I-270 and I-495.
  • There is not enough consensus among all stakeholders.
  • There is no detailed plan for I-270 north of I-370, all the way to Frederick.

“Despite the expenditure of over $140 million and over four years of work, the basic

questions about what investment is needed and how to pay for it have not been answered,” Elrich wrote. 

The I-270 and I-495 widening project has generated considerable debate this year. In May, the Department of Transportation removed a large portion of I-495 that would be widened.

The project’s first phase includes reconstructing the American Legion Bridge and constructing two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction from the bridge to I-370. The price tag for it is about $6 billion.

The project already has cleared some hurdles. One is approval for an air quality conformity analysis by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board last month — reversing course after the board decided to remove it from that analysis in June, putting it at risk of losing federal approval and funding.

The Board of Public Works votes Tuesday will determine:

  • Whether the state will enter into a pre-development contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners. That is the coalition of private companies that would work with the state on engineering and design work to build the project. The coalition includes Transurban, the Australian-based company that would operate the tolls.
  • A 60-year lease between the State Highway Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority, a piece needed to allow toll lanes between the American Legion Bridge and Frederick 

Elrich and County Council members were split on the merits of the project last month.

County Council Member Hans Riemer negotiated a deal with state officials, which he said will help secure funding for one of two bus rapid transit projects in the county: the Corridor Cities Transitway from near Clarksburg to the Shady Grove Metro Station, or the Md. 355 bus rapid transit line.

The latter would be two pieces, from Clarksburg to the Rockville Metro Station, and from there, to the Bethesda Metro station. 

Riemer and four of his council colleagues supported the project after that. Elrich and others, including County Council President Tom Hucker disagreed.

Riemer and businessman David Blair are running against Elrich in a Democratic primary for county executive in 2022. Hucker is considering running, too.

But Elrich and the County Council agree the project has not undergone a thorough financial review. They said the state’s bond counsel and financial advisor need to review the public-private partnership and report to Hogan and the General Assembly.

“Regardless of one’s view of the policy merits of any project, the State should not enter into an agreement of this magnitude without due diligence to fully understand the contractual obligations we are assuming,” the County Council wrote.

Riemer said in an interview Tuesday that the letter shows that County Council members are concerned about the financial impacts of the project, even if they disagree on whether it is needed.

The Purple Line, a 16.2-mile light-rail line proposed to run from Bethesda to the New Carrollton Metro Station in Prince George’s County, is an example of how a public-private partnership can be a flawed model for transportation projects, Riemer said.

“From my perspective, I want to make sure the project is thoroughly vetted and the state has used all of its powers to see it through, and make sure the public is protected,” he said.

Hucker could not immediately be reached for comment via a phone call or text message Tuesday. 

The Board of Public Works is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Annapolis

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com