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Board Expected to Delay High Stakes Vote on Changes to Hogan Highway Plan

The Capital Beltway and other Maryland interstates have become speedways during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Angela Breck

Faced with requests from state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) — a crucial vote on the state’s powerful Board of Public Works — and nearly 90 state lawmakers, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has reluctantly agreed to delay a vote on his controversial plan to widen two frequently-clogged highways in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

The Board of Public Works is scheduled to consider changes to Hogan’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) and Interstate 270 on Wednesday. But it’s expected that members of the panel — which consists of Hogan, Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) — will agree to move the item to the panel’s final meeting of the year, Dec. 18.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Franchot wrote that he and the public deserve more time to review a series of amendments that were distributed by the governor’s office on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

“This item, as proposed, would substantially accelerate and broaden the existing agreement to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, and contains important revisions to the proposal that was approved by the BPW this past June,” Franchot wrote.

“This issue is one with far-reaching ramifications for the mobility, economy and livability of the entire National Capital Region,” he added. “It will, furthermore, establish transportation policy precedents that will affect how we build highway and transit infrastructure throughout Maryland for many years to come. I believe that all of us — and most importantly, the public — will benefit from this additional time for critical review, questions and input.”

A spokesman for Hogan said that Franchot and Kopp were given a substantial briefing package on the proposal several days ago.

But Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) said the comptroller’s request for additional time to review the proposed changes was reasonable.

“This item was dropped on the agenda on the Friday before Thanksgiving to be voted on the Wednesday after,” he said in an interview. “It’s obviously a very expensive, very complicated, very long-term project that just requires a little bit of scrutiny by the three people who are supposed to be overseeing this stuff.”

The Maryland Transportation Authority and Maryland Department of Transportation are seeking several changes to the broad parameters of Hogan’s plan the board approved in June. Chief among them: they want to conduct outreach to potential contractors for Phase 1 of the project (the widening of I-270) and Phase 2 (the widening of both the American Legion Bridge and the Beltway between the bridge and I-95) at the same time, a dramatic re-ordering of the previous timetable.

In addition, the agencies want approval to purchase homes in the potential path of the project as they come up for sale, rather than wait for environmental studies. They also want to allow government-run commuter buses to use new “express toll lanes” free of charge, but not other buses.

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) called it “absurd” to have the state purchasing homes at this point in the process.

“It’s incredible premature [to] give the state Department of Transportation the authority to buy potentially a $1 million house in Chevy Chase… without even having final approval that that’s where the road is going to go,” he said.

He also accused the Hogan administration of acting “as if the only solution we have is more lanes everywhere, without really giving full study and due credit to alternatives,” such as improved mass transit, carpooling and telework.

Korman said it’s unclear if the prime vendor will be required to disclose the names of their subcontractors before the contract is awarded, a prospect he called “very concerning.”

“It’s not ‘Traffic Relief Partners LLC'” whose history lawmakers and the public will want to probe, he said, invoking the name of a hypothetical consortium that might be created to bid on the $11 billion project.

“It’s the parties behind them whose track record we should be looking at and whose promises we should be scrutinizing … Those are the people who are going to be doing the real work.”

Franchot, who is considering a run for governor in 2022, was not alone in seeking a delay. More than 80 lawmakers cosigned a letter to Hogan late Monday, led by Solomon and Korman, joining in the call for postponement.

“MDOT is well aware of the controversial nature of the project and the wide array of concerns that have been expressed, including particular concerns relevant to the BPW such as the structure and cost of the procurement,” the legislators wrote.

The lawmakers — all Democrats — accused MDOT of “backtracking” on a pledge not to take homes and businesses to widen the two roads. They expressed frustration that the agency won’t disclose how much motorists will have to pay to use new “managed toll lanes.” And they noted that local planners have repeatedly complained about a lack of information from the State Highway Administration.

Franchot — a regular ally of Hogan’s who voted for the initial highway expansion plan at a BPW meeting in June — may have qualms about fully embracing the updated proposal as he contemplates his political future, with environmental groups and Montgomery County political leaders almost universally opposed to the idea.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said Franchot canceled a briefing on the governor’s proposal from the State Highway Administration that had been scheduled for Monday. Len Foxwell, Franchot’s chief of staff, said the comptroller had sought to reschedule the briefing until sometime before the Dec. 18 meeting.

In a statement released on Monday, Ricci stopped short of saying Wednesday’s vote would definitely be delayed.

”We will consider the comptroller’s request, as we always do for members of the Board of Public Works,” he said.

“Our administration has gone above and beyond to solicit input for this project from local officials and residents, over the course of dozens of outreach events, workshops, meetings, hearings, and briefings. Maryland and Virginia leaders are working together across party lines to deliver much-needed traffic relief to the region, and we look forward to taking the next steps to advance this historic agreement that has eluded elected leaders for decades.”

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Board Expected to Delay High Stakes Vote on Changes to Hogan Highway Plan