Environmental activists and other opponents of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s plan to widen two major roadways are mounting an 11th-hour push to get the General Assembly to force additional review of the projects.
When the session began, opponents touted a series of measures designed to thwart — or at least slow — Hogan’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) and I-270.
Now, with the legislature set to adjourn Monday and none of their bills having cleared both chambers, activists acknowledge they may leave Annapolis empty-handed.
They have one remaining hope — House Bill 1091 — legislation that would require additional assessments of the environmental and financial impact of Hogan’s proposal.
That bill was approved by the House of Delegates 96-42 on March 18 but the Senate has been slow to move. HB 1091 didn’t have a hearing before the Budget & Taxation Committee until Wednesday afternoon.
“The ball is in the Senate’s court right now,” said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. “It’s vital that the House work product be moved in the Senate because we’re running out of time here.”
Hogan would fund construction of four new lanes on the Beltway and I-270 through the use of public-private partnerships, financing arrangements in which private-sector firms provide up-front monies in exchange for the right to collect tolls on the new lanes. Existing lanes would remain free.
Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker (D), a former state delegate, accused the Hogan administration of pushing “awful policy advanced through a terrible process.”
Speaking at an Annapolis press conference Wednesday, Hucker said the legislature must apply the brakes to Hogan’s project to protect the environment, surrounding neighborhoods and the state’s taxpayers.
“I was here when we passed the P3 bill,” he said. “It was never intended to be a way for the governor to deliver projects as an end-run around local governments and around the General Assembly.”
Ever since the governor announced his road plan in 2017, opponents have claimed that it would harm the environment by encouraging more people to drive. They also express concern that existing homes would be lost to construction.
Hogan has pledged that no existing homes or businesses will be seized to widen the roads. And state transportation officials have defended their funding approach, saying the state lacks the bonding capability the estimated $9 billion to $11 billion worth of projects would require.
Sources in both chambers say that if HB 1091 was a priority for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), it would not be crawling along at a snail’s pace through the chamber. As things stand, even if both chambers approve the measure, the stage is set for Hogan (R) to veto the measure after lawmakers adjourn, leaving them unable to attempt an override until 2020, at which point the project may be too far along to derail.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said the project “is being over-sold as basically a panacea [and] silver bullet for traffic, totally ignoring all the other traffic impacts in Montgomery County, totally ignoring the role of transit that could be used to reduce traffic congestion.”
Elrich said he supports a widening of the American Legion Bridge at Cabin John, the site of daily bottlenecks during the morning and evening commutes. He and the county council also support adding lanes to I-270 “within the right of way, with reversible lanes.”
“This is a project that doesn’t even require a P3,” he said. “This requires paint and a little bit of concrete.”
“It would be nice if he had talked to us,” Elrich said of Hogan. “We’ve never been part of the discussion.”
In an interview with Maryland Matters, Elrich said he has personally urged the governor to advocate for the same transit improvements to which the state was prepared to commit if Amazon had agreed to build its second headquarters in North Bethesda.
“It’s frustrating,” Elrich said. “I’d like to work with him.”
Elrich pointed to the Purple Line, a P3-funded rail link now under construction in his county and neighboring Prince George’s County.
“It’s continuing to have problems,” he said. “Costs are continuing to go up.”
Elrich also urged the Senate to act before adjournment.
“You’re going to put Maryland taxpayers on the hook for this at the end of the day and we need to make sure that this thing is done right,” he said.
Michael Ricci, the governor’s office spokesman, said the Maryland Department of Transportation “has been proactive and aggressive in its outreach to local and county officials, as part of its commitment to a robust public dialogue on the traffic relief plan. We certainly welcome the new county executive to this dialogue.”
Ricci noted recent MDOT briefings with the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils and both counties’ Annapolis delegations, as well as a few local chambers of commerce. Upcoming public workshops also are planned in Landover and Bethesda.
If the bill fails to advance, or if it does and Hogan vetoes it, road-widening opponents are preparing to lobby the Democrats who sit alongside the governor on the influential Board of Public Works — Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot — to question and perhaps block P3-related contracts that come to them for approval.
“Both of them have a critical eye when it comes to the finances of the state,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club. “And both of them have proved willing to stand up or stand against certain contracts that they don’t think pass muster.”
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