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All Eyes on Franchot as Bd. of Public Works Considers Hogan’s Highway Plan

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), right, and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at a Board of Public Works meeting last year. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

State Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot’s enjoyment of the limelight is so accepted in Maryland political circles that even he makes jokes about it.

“The only thing silent about Peter Franchot is the ‘T’ at the end of my name,” the state’s four-term tax collector said in a recent podcast.

Franchot aides have repeated the joke on Facebook and elsewhere.

When the Board of Public Works convenes on Wednesday morning, silence will not be an option.

Instead, all eyes and ears will be on the Montgomery County Democrat, a former state legislator from (and current resident of) Takoma Park who is believed to be the swing vote on a key Hogan administration priority, the designation of a massive suburban Washington transportation project as a public-private partnership.

Aides say Franchot has been briefed repeatedly on the plan and has met frequently with high-level members of the governor’s team and with opponents of the proposal. And they insist he is undecided heading into the vote.

Franchot’s role was underscored by an editorial posted on The Baltimore Sun’s website Tuesday night that used pointed language to urge him to “stop the runaway plan to let one or more private companies build and operate so-called ‘Lexus Lanes’  on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.”

“The moment has finally arrived,” the newspaper wrote in a direct message to Franchot, “when your populist tendencies, your desire to be at the center of decision-making and, yes, even your need to assert your independence against the ‘Annapolis Machine’ could actually come in handy.”

As he mulls his options, there are multiple questions swirling around Franchot:

* Is this the right plan?

Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn has insisted that there is no money for massive transportation improvements and that if the state wants to bring relief to commuters in the notoriously congested Washington, D.C., suburbs, they must tap the borrowing potential of firms like TransUrban, the firm that built some of Northern Virginia’s express toll lanes.

But MDOT’s plan to have private firms build and maintain four new lanes on the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Interstate 270 — two in each direction, with variable tolls set by the concessionaire — has hit a solid brick wall with state lawmakers and top local officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Their complaints are many and have been reported on extensively, most recently on Monday, when critics of the state’s plans, including Montgomery Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), held a news conference to tout a seven-point alternative. The event was attended by more than a dozen reporters.

While Franchot’s main job is to collect taxes, comptrollers in the modern era have positioned themselves as fiscal watchdogs as well, and for good reason. Franchot is one of three votes on the Board of Public Works. He has the ability to approve or reject billions of dollars in contracts, with a bully pulpit that enables him to raise a stink if he doesn’t think taxpayers are being protected.

Will he agree with critics of Hogan’s highway plan, who carp that taxpayers will be on the hook if winning bidders collapse? Will his political standing take a hit if tolls are set so high that ordinary workers can’t afford to drive on the new lanes? Or has the state done sufficient due diligence that Franchot can vote with Hogan (R) and come out ahead?

If he votes with Hogan, Franchot owns this plan, for better or worse.

“He’s carefully reviewing the information provided to him and is prepared to ask some very detailed, substantive questions about the proposal,” said the comptroller’s chief of staff, Len Foxwell.

* Can this train be stopped?

Wednesday’s vote is an important early hurdle for Hogan’s plan, but much work remains, including soliciting bids, choosing one or more concessionaires, and battling the inevitable lawsuits. But formally approving the I-495/I-270 project as an official P3 and agreeing to the proposed solicitation process would produce a wave of momentum.

Could Franchot, at a later date, stop the train if he doesn’t like the direction it’s headed, without massive pushback from the administration? There would be howls of protest from Hogan, Franchot’s longtime ally on many high-profile issues, who argue that time and money are on the line and that progress must continue.

A no vote after Wednesday is possible but would require considerable courage.

* The Hogan factor

Speaking of Hogan, he delivered a scorched-earth speech to a business group on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before the Board of Public Works meeting.

In it he assailed the “state legislators and local elected officials [who] are apparently in favor of continued traffic congestion and are once again working to stall our plans…”

He called his $9 billion to $11 billion plan “the only serious solution to this issue.”

“These politicians have done absolutely nothing but spread misinformation,” he added. “They’ve offered no solutions to solve a transportation, public health, environmental and public safety crisis…”

As Franchot knows, local officials have many ideas for easing congestion on the Beltway, I-270 and other roads, they’re just different from what Hogan and Rahn want.

While Franchot wasn’t in the audience at Maryland Live! Casino Tuesday, Hogan seemed to be speaking to him nonetheless.

“The vote on this issue is tomorrow before the Board of Public Works, and it literally will determine the quality of life for Marylanders for decades to come,” he said.

Despite their party differences, Hogan and Franchot have been ideological soulmates for years. The governor’s barbed rhetoric, on the eve of the vote, felt like an attempt to secure the second vote he needs to avoid a humiliating defeat on a signature issue.

* Mixed messages from the public

Hogan and those around him like to quote the recent Washington Post poll that showed strong support for his plan. While D.C.-area residents are frustrated with the growing burdens of epic commutes, the survey makes clear the public is uncertain about how to remedy the region’s worst-in-the-nation traffic.

The same survey that showed considerable support for the state’s plan to widen the two roadways also found majorities concerned about the taking of homes and businesses, the potential that tolls will be out of reach for some motorists, and the potential that road widening will not provide lasting relief.

Franchot 2022

Although aides insist that Franchot has made no decisions about the 2022 race for governor, his decision to run — if it comes — would be a significant development, given his current popularity.

A high-profile vote to advance Hogan’s P3 would likely put him crosswise with many of the environmentalists, transit advocates and others who make up the Democratic base, a large and essential voting bloc in a state where most contests are decided in the primary.

“For Democrats, [on] the road to a nomination, you’re going to have to be strong on public transit,” said Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political science professor and director of the Goucher Poll. “That’s really clear. … What they don’t want is expanding roads and highways.”

“Democrats view transportation through the lens of economic equality, and they’re going to point to studies that suggest that when you have more access to public transportation, that increases economic opportunity for everybody,” she added.

Because the board — made up of Hogan, Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) — is so small, the scrutiny on the comptroller will be unavoidable and intense.

Former state attorney general Douglas F. Gansler (D) said that if the panel were larger, Franchot’s vote might not seem like such a defining moment. But that’s not the case.

“This vote, like so many others, has taken on broader political implications because there are [just] three people on the panel,” Gansler said.

“In some ways it’s unfair to Peter because he gets sort of tainted with the politics of a decision when he very well may be, and usually is, doing what he believes is in the best interests of the people of Maryland.”

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All Eyes on Franchot as Bd. of Public Works Considers Hogan’s Highway Plan