Watching the livestream of the Maryland Board of Public Works meeting earlier this month, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D) was surprised to see the three-member panel pivot, seemingly on a dime, on plans to widen one of the largest highways in her jurisdiction.
“I didn’t see that one coming,” she said in an interview on Monday. “I was very surprised when these projects were flipped.”
Not only was Gardner surprised that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) were willing to put plans to widen Interstate 270 ahead of plans to widen the Capital Beltway (I-495), the dramatic way in which the amendment was introduced and voted on also left her perplexed.
“It was not clear then how that was going to be phased,” she said.
Through a subsequent clarification from a Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman, local leaders and citizens learned that the amended plan to widen the two roads means the southern leg of I-270 — between the Beltway and I-370 in Gaithersburg — gets widened first, a decision that would appear to offer only modest relief for Gardner’s constituents in Frederick, many of whom spend long hours in traffic each day commuting to and from jobs in Montgomery County, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.
“It appears it could create an even bigger bottleneck than exists now.”
As residents of Frederick and Washington counties know all too well, northbound 270 narrows from six lanes to two north of Clarksburg, creating a tedious merge each weekday. (And not just then.)
Since watching Hogan and Franchot outvote the third member of the board, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), on her computer, Gardner has been eager to learn more.
“I’m trying to get a briefing from MDOT on the particulars of the project,” she told Maryland Matters. “What is the plan? What is the timing? I just don’t know the answer to those questions.”
Gardner said that she was expected to get a “technical briefing” from the agency on Tuesday, but it was abruptly cancelled with no explanation.
“I like to be pragmatic. I like to be a problem-solver. And I want to reschedule. I told them it had to be before July 4. That was my deadline.”
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, denied on Monday that Gardner was scheduled to be briefed by the state on Tuesday. After an inquiry from a reporter, he said that State Highway Administrator Greg Slater was reaching out to her personally and that he “will set up a full briefing soon.”
Hogan said it made sense to prioritize the southern portion of I-270 over the stretch of I-495 that runs through Montgomery County because there is less public and political opposition to that portion of his plan than there was to his Beltway expansion proposal.
MDOT spokesman Erin Henson said the move was also propelled by the large number of cars that use the southern portion of 270. Because the administration is pursuing a plan to have private sector firms finance and build express new lanes on the two roads, in exchange for the right to levy tolls of varying amounts, Henson said the revenue from Phase 1 can help fund subsequent phases.
Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn has forcefully advocated for a “public-private partnership” approach on the grounds that the state has no money — or borrowing capacity — for big-ticket projects like the widening of 270 and the Beltway.
While not explicitly endorsing the state’s approach, Gardner sounded sympathetic.
“If there is not a P3, there has to be a source of revenue to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund,” she said.
“It’s the only solution that’s been put on the table,” she added. “I don’t say it’s the only solution that’s out there. … The money has to come from somewhere to make this work.”