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Board Schedules Vote on Controversial Road Widening Plan, Despite Treasurer’s Absence

The Maryland Board of Public Works is set to vote next week on a high-profile and controversial transportation item even though one of its three members will be out of the country.

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp notified the board months ago that she will be overseas celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary with her husband, and on Monday an aide formally asked Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to pull the item from the panel’s May 8 agenda as a courtesy.

The item, 16-GM, would advance the state’s plan to use a private-financing process to widen Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway (I-495).

The board is made up of the governor, the treasurer, who is elected by the legislature, and the comptroller.

Hogan wants to widen the frequently congested roads two lanes in each direction, with a private developer fronting construction costs in exchange for the right to charge tolls on the new “express” lanes.

The BPW agenda item would officially designate the program as a public-private partnership and would approve a proposed competitive bid process for selecting developers for the various stages of the project.

Joanna W. Kille, the treasurer’s liaison to the Board of Public Works, asked for the delay in an email on Monday.

“The Treasurer requests that MDOT withdraw Item 16-GM from the May 8th meeting in light of her long scheduled absence from that meeting,” she wrote to a Hogan aide.

“Withdrawing the Item upon her request is in accordance with the Board’s longstanding tradition to afford each member a one-meeting delay when requested.”

Opponents of Hogan’s road-widening plan, which was unveiled in 2017, came up short in their efforts to get the General Assembly to require additional environmental and financial reviews of the project.

Now they hope the Board of Public Works will slow or stop the process.

“It’s incredibly irresponsible to jam this issue through in the absence of our state treasurer,” Joshua Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said in an interview Wednesday. “Doing so would put state taxpayers at risk.”

In an email, Michael Ricci, the governor’s communications director, confirmed that the board plans to move forward with the controversial project.

“Yes, the item remains on the agenda,” he wrote. “Under state law, the treasurer has the authority to designate her deputy as acting treasurer to serve as her proxy. The comptroller, for instance, used this authority in April 2015.”

The state has defended its use of the “P3” process, created six years ago by the legislature to fund the Purple Line light rail project, saying that Maryland lacks the borrowing capacity necessary for a project of this scope, and that only a consortium of deep-pocketed private firms can handle the necessary financing.

Transportation advocates have heralded Hogan’s road-widening plan as the only realistic solution to the capital region’s ever-worsening traffic woes. They say express lanes have proven useful in other areas as a way of giving those with the means to pay an opportunity to bypass congested lanes.

State transportation planners have pledged to maintain speed limits of 45 miles an hour, with tolls fluctuating accordingly.

But Tulkin and others believe Maryland is putting the cart before the horse.

“The BPW should not consider the P3 process until the completion of the environmental review process,” he said.

“The environmental impact study will first verify if this project is even viable, and it will show us the real environmental impact, including impacts and takings of property, noise impacts and will greatly inform the potential costs of the project.”

The state’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is estimated to run between $9 billion and $11 billion.

The state has been in discussions with the federal government about taking control of the parkway, which is currently owned by the National Park Service, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Many officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s — including Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) — oppose Hogan’s plan and have complained that state officials have failed to engage in discussions on alternative proposals or consult in a meaningful way with local planners and engineers.

Elrich said he didn’t understand why the board wouldn’t grant a delay on the issue.

“It’s wrong,” he said. “A delay long enough for her to get back will not negatively impact anything [the governor] wants to do, unless he’s uncomfortable with having a full discussion of the issue.”

The state is holding “public workshops” in Montgomery and Prince George’s, to give residents an opportunity to learn more about the state’s plans and to comment on them. Thousands of people have attended the sessions, including many homeowners who live close to the Beltway and 270.

When he was campaigning for reelection, Hogan declared flatly that no homes or businesses would be taken by eminent domain to widen the highways. More recently, state engineering reports show that three dozen structures could end up in the path of the project, with hundreds more having some indirect impact, such as the shrinking of a yard.

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Board Schedules Vote on Controversial Road Widening Plan, Despite Treasurer’s Absence