The Board of Public Works had a packed agenda for its final meeting of the year.
The influential panel, set to convene on Wednesday in the Governor’s Reception Room, had 80 items on its to-do list.
The BPW was being asked to approve $4 million in National Capital Strategic Economic Development Fund grants to help people struggling with housing insecurity, $4.7 million for a new academic building at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, $99.9 million in additional funds for the redevelopment of Cole Field House at the University of Maryland College Park, and an $80 million addition to a contract to expand the Maryland Port Administration’s Cox Creek Expanded Dredged Material Containment Facility.
But Valerie Radomsky, the Hogan administration’s liaison to the BPW, sent out a brief email to state agencies on Saturday night announcing that Wednesday’s entire meeting has been cancelled. No explanation was provided.
Radomsky’s email was obtained and first reported by Maryland Matters on Saturday.
The unusual and seemingly abrupt decision to cancel the Dec. 18 board meeting came on a weekend that saw the Hogan administration and top aides to Comptroller Peter V.R Franchot (D) trade barbed messages on Facebook — a visible fraying of a durable political alliance that has mutually benefited both political leaders. Hogan and Franchot, along with state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), serve on the BPW.
Franchot has been seeking a delay in a complex set of amendments to the governor’s plan to widen two highways in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Franchot’s home turf. Originally set to take place on Dec. 4, and moved to the 18th at Franchot’s request, the comptroller more recently urged a second delay, to Jan. 8.
Though a top Hogan aide denied that Franchot’s continued push for a delay — and possible changes — to Hogan’s plan triggered the decision to cancel the meeting, there was rampant speculation on Sunday that the governor’s anger at Franchot led to his decision.
“It appears that the entire agenda — all these other things that are important to other constituencies — have all been delayed over this one item where the governor doesn’t have a second vote to do what he wants,” said Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery).
“It may be the governor feels it’s embarrassing to be seen in public at a Board of Public Works meeting when apparently he doesn’t have support, at this moment, for what he wants to do.”
Hogan’s struggle to muscle a series of changes to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s proposed “public-private partnership” through the BPW has imperiled one of his top second-term priorities.
It also risks damaging a key relationship, his partnership with Franchot, a years-long bond that has brought Hogan policy victories and fueled his image as a populist who governs across the partisan divide.
“There could be an ‘appearance’ risk in that it might be the first time in a Board of Public Works meeting where you could see Hogan and Franchot in contrast on an issue,” said Mileah K. Kromer, a Goucher College political scientist.
“It’s a conflict that would make the news that would catch people’s attention,” she added.
The administration’s decision to cancel Wednesday’s meeting came hours after Hogan (or his social media team) posted a Washington Post editorial to his Facebook page.
Hogan’s post highlighted a line from the editorial aimed at Franchot. “Ultimately, though, [Comptroller Franchot] and other elected officials face a choice: play politics by pandering to naysayers, or face the fact that traffic will get much worse without major new highway construction.”
[Critics call the Post‘s editorial stance laughably false. The choices are not Hogan’s plan or gridlock, of course.]
Shortly after Hogan’s Facebook attack, Len Foxwell, Franchot’s chief of staff, pushed back in a Facebook post of his own, referencing the massive delays caused by resurfacing work on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which he called a “fiasco.”
“This is complicated work, and good intentions alone aren’t enough,” Foxwell wrote.
“If we’re really serious about getting Marylanders out of traffic gridlock and improving the reliability of our highways, bridges and transit lines, we must be committed to an evidence-based, data-driven approach to transportation planning. We cannot afford to simply make it up as we go along.”
The back and forth spilled over into Sunday.
Michael Ricci, the governor’s communications director, downplayed the public spat, saying social media use by office-holders “is pretty standard these days.”
He said the decision to cancel this week’s BPW meeting was unrelated to Franchot’s refusal to accept MDOT’s highway-widening plan in its current form.
“We looked at the agenda and thought we could move everything to the new year, and so we did,” Ricci said.
“We continue to have positive conversations with the Comptroller. We’ll keep addressing his questions and concerns.”
The changes sought by MDOT would alter the state’s $11 billion plan to widen the American Legion Bridge and significant portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway (I-495) in Montgomery County.
The state wants the ability to combine two phases into one massive project, the power to purchase individual homes and businesses before environment reviews are complete, and to alter a commitment made to Franchot in June — before a key vote — to provide transit funding to counties in the D.C. area.
While MDOT is willing to allow commuter bus lines run by government agencies to use future express toll lanes free of charge, lines run by others would — if another amendment is adopted — be forced to pay the same varying tolls that other motorists pay.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) cautioned against reading too much into Hogan’s decision to cancel Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting, saying, “there could be other reasons. … He is the governor. He can cancel the meeting and he can reschedule the meeting.”
The long-serving Senate leader then offered some insight into why Hogan is eager to get his “signature” transportation priority moving.
“The governor does polling,” Miller said. “He does it on a regular basis. And I’m aware that he did a recent poll, and in that poll the public is very concerned about transportation and gridlock, along with other items, including education. And when the governor sees what the public wants, and he has the ability to address certain things, he’ll respond.”
Franchot may also be motivated by political considerations. After years of being Hogan’s chief Democratic defender, Franchot’s apparent desire to run for governor in 2022 carries with it a new imperative — to display independence from the governor on certain occasions, in order to align with Democratic primary voters and affiliated groups like environmental organizations that oppose the highway widening.
Whether Hogan and Franchot are able to find a rapprochement or whether they escalate their attacks remains to be seen.
“I would hope that [Hogan and Franchot] can work this out, because it’s very important,” Miller said, adding that the D.C. area’s traffic problem “needs to be addressed.”