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Lawmakers Seek Longer Environmental Review for Hogan Road-Widening Plan

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) labeled Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen major Maryland highways “pixie dust.” Korman campaign photo

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 could be pushed back for a year if the General Assembly adopts a bill that would require the state to complete an environmental assessment before moving forward.

House Bill 91 would require all “pre-solicitation reports” for Public-Private Partnerships — or P3s — to be held until an Environmental Impact Statement is finished.

This would force the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Transportation Authority to pull their current pre-solicitation report, and not present a new one until 2020.

The move comes amid ongoing community and political resistance to the $9 billion to $11 billion plan the governor unveiled in 2017.

That proposal, intended to ease traffic in the congested capital region, would add four lanes — two in each direction — to I-495 (the Capital Beltway), I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The new capacity would come from “express” lanes financed by private-sector firms that would foot the upfront costs in exchange for the right to charge tolls.

Those tolls would fluctuate based on traffic conditions and motorist demand, similar to the system now in use on the new I-95 express lanes north of Baltimore City.

The bill being debated in Annapolis is sponsored by two Montgomery County lawmakers, Dels. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D) and Marc Korman (D). Two House committees — Appropriations and Transportation & Environment — heard more than two hours of testimony on the measure on Tuesday.

In an interview after the hearing, Korman said the bill would require the state to follow the same process it is using to build the Purple Line — “finish the environmental reviews, select the alternative that you want to go with, and then do the P3 solicitation process.”

Korman said residents in the communities likely to be impacted by the road widening projects deserve more information than they’ve received so far.

“I heard a lot of concern from people about unanswered questions about this project. How it’s going to work, what it’s going to cost, where it’s going to go?” he said. “And the EIS process allows us to get some of those answers before committing the state to what they say is a $9 billion to $11 billion — but could be higher — 50-year commitment.”

Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told lawmakers the measure would impose unacceptable delays.

“We are facing a serious crisis for transportation within the region,” he said. “By 2040, most of the Beltway [drivers] are going to be in gridlock for many hours more than what they currently are.”

He also said that construction costs mount the longer it takes to get a deal in place — and that higher costs could scare away some potential bidders.

“Inflation on the construction can run over $300 million,” he said in an interview. “Interest rates are rising. A quarter of a percent increase in interest rates could cost this project another $350 million over its life. Delay is not in Maryland’s favor.”

The Federal Highway Administration has encouraged states to complete the environmental study and pre-solicitation in tandem, he said.

Delegates expressed concerns that the state had not provided enough opportunity for public input, or details on expected tolls.

“They are relying on private-sector pixie dust,” Korman said. “I hope the private sector has really good solutions to move traffic in Montgomery and Prince George’s and broadly in the state of Maryland. But we can’t commit ourselves to a public-private partnership for 50 years without having more of the details about what’s in that pixie dust.”

“We believe we have a very solid proposal,” countered Rahn. “We need to communicate that with folks. This isn’t pixie dust.”

Because sponsors want the measure to take effect immediately, the legislation has been filed as an “emergency bill,” requiring the approval of three-fifths of both chambers.

David Jahng of Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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Lawmakers Seek Longer Environmental Review for Hogan Road-Widening Plan