Divided Bd. of Public Works OK’s Public-Private Partnership for Highway Expansion After Explosive Hearing

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. during Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

After a contentious three-hour public hearing and equally heated debate, a divided Maryland Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to approve Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s proposal to create a public-private partnership to widen two major interstates in the historically congested Washington, D.C., suburbs.

State Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) joined with Hogan in supporting the measure; state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) voted against it.

But bowing to public criticism, particularly among Montgomery County elected officials and civic activists, Hogan said he would “regrettably” flip the order of the three phases of the proposed highway expansion, meaning the Interstate 270 widening would likely take place before the widening of the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County. Expansion of the Beltway in Prince George’s County would be the third phase.

Hogan said the change in order would give state officials more time to work with leaders in Montgomery County who have criticized the idea of putting more cars on the road and have expressed fears that highway expansion would result in homes and parkland near the Beltway being razed. Hogan observed that the I-270 widening has been less controversial in the community.

“This will allow a couple more years of input and study and debate and more time for the overwhelming majority of citizens and the hundreds of thousands of commuters who sit in that traffic to convince their local leaders that they desperately want to relieve this traffic congestion on the Beltway,” he said.

The proposal to add two lanes in each direction to the Beltway (Interstate 495) and I-270 is one of the most controversial to come before the Board of Public Works in years. The Hogan plan would establish a public-private partnership to expand the highways with additional toll lanes. A private company would pocket some of the toll revenue.

The proposal has generated unprecedented political heat in Montgomery County and among many Prince George’s County elected officials in recent months.

Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) testified in opposition to the project Wednesday, provoking blunt exchanges with Hogan. The governor also appeared dismissive of many of Kopp’s questions and objections – and he has suggested that environmental groups, elected officials and civic leaders who oppose his highway expansion plans are in effect condemning residents to more traffic jams.

“I’ve been accused of loving congestion. I do not love congestion,” Kopp shot back.

Franchot, a regular Hogan ally, praised the governor’s proposed compromise, calling it “divine intervention” and “an absolute game-changing amendment.”

Franchot suggested that the extra time will give the Hogan administration and Montgomery County leaders an opportunity to come together and that it “opens up a very collaborative approach on actually making progress on something that has lingered out there for years.”

State and Montgomery County officials agree that the American Legion Bridge, which connects Maryland and Virginia along the Beltway, just before the I-270 spur, should be widened first. But the bridge expansion will now be part of the second phase of the highway project — a consequence, Hogan said, of Montgomery officials’ objections.

“I’d love to build a bridge,” Hogan said. “My No. 1 priority is a bridge.”

Kopp questioned why the bridge couldn’t be part of the first phase of construction. She also said she could not vote for the highway widening proposal because the Board of Public Works hasn’t received sufficient information from state transportation officials about the volume of traffic the highway expansion would bring, the amount of pollution it would generate or save, or estimates about the revenues the toll lanes would generate.

Hogan said the highway widening plan “will result in less traffic, more peace of mind, cleaner air, and a much better quality of life.”

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THIS STORY IS DEVELOPING. CHECK BACK WITH MARYLAND MATTERS SOON FOR MORE IN-DEPTH COVERAGE OF WEDNESDAY’S EVENTS.

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this update. Sounds like Kopp is the only one looking for and reading information and listening to all. The other 2 don’t want to know so they bully ahead.

  2. Is this a monarchy or a democracy? If the citizens don’t want it, why does the governor and his ally get to ram it through? Commuters’ needs should not trump residents needs. Are there not grounds for a lawsuit by all the people whose homes and businesses will be taken by eminent domain or will be impacted by closer proximity to the increased noise, the decreased air quality and its impact on children and vulnerable adults?

    In what universe does it make sense that they can pass this without the adequate data on traffic & congestion impact and environmental impact? I agree with Kopp. It seems like dereliction of duty to make these decisions without that data.

    The beltway is a poorly designed road. Period. We should not increase our commitment to something that is at its core bad. The whole DMV area needs to rethink transportation and be a lot more visionary about what we’re doing.

    We need to stop resisting public transportation options. If they were invested in to the extent that we invest in roads, people would take trains. I’ve lived in a public transportation-rich city for a decade, and people who live in the suburbs and have cars take the train into town. It was easy and affordable, and preferable to driving.

    If other countries can get this right, we can too.

  3. Also, Hogan can not believe that the expansion will reduce traffic, as he is quoted as saying at the end of the article. Study after study has shown that expanding roadways INCREASE traffic. The theory is that the expansion will reduce CONGESTION, but to my knowledge, that hypothesis has never been validated by reality.

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