Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) signaled on Wednesday that he will need more than a two-week delay before he is ready to vote on changes to the state’s controversial plan to widen the American Legion Bridge, the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) agreed to remove a set of amendments from Wednesday’s Board of Public Works agenda reluctantly, and only because he desperately needs Franchot’s vote to keep the project moving forward. Hogan did not attend Wednesday’s BPW meeting.
The amendments, submitted by the Maryland Transportation Authority and the state Department of Transportation, are intended to generate momentum for the $11 billion highway-widening plan, a major second-term priority for the term-limited executive. Hogan and his transportation secretary, Pete K. Rahn, have repeatedly said that the state must move urgently to address the capital region’s worst-in-the-nation traffic problems.
When he first requested in writing that the administration’s amendments be removed from the Dec. 4 meeting, Franchot asked that they be “placed instead on the agenda for the next meeting on December 18.”
But in an interview outside the governor’s office on Wednesday, he said that a longer delay would be beneficial.
“What is the rush? If we’re talking about the largest [public-private partnership] contract in the country, what’s the problem with waiting not just one session but maybe two Board of Public Works [meetings]?”
The MdTA and MDOT are seeking several changes to the preliminary approval granted by the board in June. Chief among them: the agencies want to combine 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) into one procurement, creating a single massive project.
The agencies have said that doing so will take full advantage of the partnership Hogan recently struck with Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) to add four express toll lanes to the frequently bottlenecked Potomac River crossing.
In addition, the agencies want approval to purchase homes in the project area 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.
Nearly half the General Assembly — 15 senators and 69 delegates — sent a letter to the board this week requesting that the changes be pulled from Wednesday’s agenda.
In the interview, Franchot said the public deserves more opportunity to absorb the changes the state is proposing.
“I have lots of questions,” he said. “The stakeholders in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County have a lot of questions. Let’s see how many of them get answered before we look at this project again.”
The board approved the designation of the project as a “P3” in June, with Hogan and Franchot outvoting the third member of the panel, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D).
Franchot noted that his willingness to support Hogan hinged, among other things, on the stipulation that the state not purchase property until later in the process. “Part of the reason we voted for this last time was that they weren’t going to do this,” he said.
Also in June, Franchot secured a commitment that 10 percent of the state’s proceeds from the P3 would go to local transit projects in Montgomery and Prince George’s. The state now proposes something different, a “secretary’s grant program,” that would also benefit Frederick County.
State officials say the change was recommended by the Attorney General’s office to comply with budget requirements. Asked if he thinks MDOT is reneging on a pledge, Franchot replied, “Yes, I do.”
Whenever the amendments come back before the BPW — on Dec. 18 or in January — Franchot said he has two overarching concerns: “Are the taxpayers protected and is this major project actually going to reduce congestion?”
“I’ve been philosophically in support of mass transit — the Purple Line, etc. I’m also a supporter of adding capacity to the Beltway and to the American Legion Bridge,” he added. “We do not want a version of the Bay Bridge paving project. … If we’re going to do this project, we need to do it right.”
Neither Hogan nor Rahn attended Wednesday’s meeting, and Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), saying he had been “called in from the bullpen,” presided.
A staffer attributed the the governor’s absence to a “change in plans.” He did not elaborate. The last-minute absences fueled staff speculation that the governor was irate at Franchot.
Franchot is scheduled to be briefed on the project by State Highway Administrator Gregory Slater on Thursday, having cancelled a session that was supposed to take place on Monday. Rahn and Slater are also scheduled to brief the state’s congressional delegation on a variety of transportation projects on Thursday.
A runaway winner in his bid for a fourth term last year, Franchot is considering a run for governor in 2022. While polls show support for the governor’s proposal, environmentalists oppose it. And many local leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s feel the state isn’t doing enough to incorporate transit into the project and to discourage single-occupant vehicles.
Franchot and his supporters know his vote on the highway-widening proposals will be a key factor in any future campaign he might wage.
He told Maryland Matters he would be “very surprised” if the amendments are “ready” for a vote on Dec. 18.
“Right now it seems a little slapdash,” he said of MDOT’s proposal. “Everybody needs to have some time to understand what’s being proposed and what will be voted on.”
He also used the interview to thank “my good friend, Gov. Hogan.”
“Thank you for putting this off, because there are lots of items in it that are very frustrating to people, and so it’s a benefit to the state that we’ve got a timeout and we can get a lot of the concerns answered and perhaps adjustments can be made.”