On Thursday, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) went big.
After 2 ½ years of small but politically potent triumphs – like toll reductions and starting school after Labor Day – along with brilliant marketing and occasional well-chosen skirmishes, the governor offered a bold transportation plan Thursday that was far more expansive than even the most enthusiastic road advocates might have imagined.
At a news conference in Gaithersburg, Hogan unveiled a $9 billion proposal to widen the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway using a combination of public and private funds. The plan would bring express toll lanes to the highways, similar to those on the Beltway in Northern Virginia and north of Baltimore city along I-95. It also, audaciously, calls for the federal government to sell the B-W Parkway, which is maintained by the National Park Service, to the state.
“These three massive, unprecedented projects to widen I-495, I-270, and MD 295 will be absolutely transformative, and they will help Maryland citizens go about their daily lives in a more efficient and safer manner,” Hogan said. “Today, we are turning Maryland’s celebrated innovation into real action.”
Smart growth and transit advocates, environmental groups and some Democrats expressed their disapproval, calling the projects short-sighted, bad for the environment and sure to spur sprawl and overdevelopment. Business groups were elated.
The sheer size of the proposal was so stunning that much of the reaction Thursday was muted. Hogan shared the stage with several Montgomery County Democrats, and the overall Democratic reaction was perhaps best summed up by U.S. Rep. John Delaney, a longtime advocate of widening 270.
“It’s good news that the state is making this a priority and now we need a bipartisan partnership across all levels of government to make a smart expansion a reality,” he said. “Obviously, on projects of this scale, God or the devil is in the details.”
So with that in mind, here are nine questions as Hogan attempts to move his project forward:
- What took him so long? Highway advocates, especially those looking to widen I-270, have been meeting with Hogan and state transportation officials since the start of his administration, and Hogan has provided funding for piecemeal improvements to the highway in the past. How come it took so long to go big? There doesn’t seem to be much political downside, from Hogan’s perspective. The groups protesting the plan weren’t likely to provide much support for his re-election anyway.
- How long will it take for the federal government to ratify the plan and provide some funding? Don’t hold your breath. That vaunted bipartisan infrastructure plan that President Trump was going to work on with Democrats isn’t even half-baked.
- Will private contractors be eager to bid for the work – and the corresponding toll revenue? TransUrban, the company that manages the high-occupancy toll lanes along the Beltway in Northern Virginia, seems to be doing well. Although a public-private partnership should get the construction started faster, is the state missing out long-term by turning a good chunk of the toll revenue over to a private entity? Maybe…
- Will construction take place on all three projects simultaneously, or will they happen one after the other? It’s easy enough to imagine the chaos when you’re talking about more than 80 miles of road, both to traffic flow on the highways and in the surrounding neighborhoods.
- Do opponents of the plan have any legal recourse? As we’ve seen with the years-long effort to derail the Purple Line, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
- What about transit? Even proponents of widening 270 envisioned a transit component along the highway, linking Montgomery County to Frederick. MARC train service on the Brunswick Line stinks, and WMATA, the Washington-area transit agency, is canceling express bus service along 270 in just a few days. Hogan argued his proposal will help the state’s cause as it attempts to woo Amazon to build its second headquarters here. But isn’t the corporate giant looking for proximity to transit for its workers? Between Hogan’s attempt to squeeze more funding out of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for the Purple Line, and his mixed record on transit funding generally, it’s clear he’s still more of a road warrior.
- What about Baltimore? Sure, the Baltimore area would benefit from an easier to navigate, less clogged B-W Parkway, and improved regional traffic flow generally. But after pulling the plug on the Red Line while greenlighting the Purple Line, Hogan runs the risk of looking like he’s greatly favoring the Washington, D.C., region for big-ticket transportation projects.
- What about the politics? See #7. Will there be political consequences for Hogan for not providing such massive help for the Baltimore region? Outside of the city, his support there is very strong. Could this $9 billion plan erode Hogan’s bulletproof status and allow the Democrats to – pardon the pun – make some inroads? On the flip side, Democrats will need a big turnout in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to beat Hogan next year; does a project of this scale offset the anti-Trump sentiment in the state’s two biggest jurisdictions when it comes to Hogan’s standing?
- Does the Interior Department really want to sell the B-W Parkway? Hogan says he’s already talked to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about his plan – a rare instance where he’s willing to be associated with the Trump administration. An agency spokesman confirmed to Greenwire Thursday that Hogan and Zinke recently had “a wide-ranging conversation about a number of issues of mutual interest” but that “no decisions related to issues involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were made during that meeting.” On the other hand, Interior has a multibillion-dollar backlog of important maintenance work at dozens of national parks across the country, and isn’t wild about being in the transportation business. Regionally, the public lands agency also maintains the GW Parkway in Virginia and the Arlington Memorial Bridge, connecting Arlington National Cemetery with D.C. And despite all of Hogan’s attempts to distance himself from Trump, the Trump administration – and national Republicans – would much rather see Hogan in Government House than any Democrat. So this just might work…
Dear Readers: What do you think of Gov. Hogan’s proposal? What do you think ought to be done to reduce traffic congestion in our state? Maryland Matters welcomes commentaries on all topics, and we’d gladly publish your thoughts on our website. Contact [email protected] if you’re interested in submitting an opinion piece.