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Hogan’s Highway Plan Hits Rough Patch and Franchot Is, For Now, the Biggest Obstacle

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R) meet last summer on the Ocean City boardwalk. Now Harris appears to be trying to nudge Hogan to reopen the state’s economy. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) rarely shrinks from a fight when it comes to standing up for his values, opposing taxes, bucking a president of his own party or pressing for accountability in public schools.

But when a reporter asked on Tuesday if the governor’s plan to widen two Washington, D.C.-area freeways — his signature transportation priority — “is unraveling,” Hogan offered an uncharacteristically cautious response.

“I sure hope it’s not.”

To be sure, the governor’s plan to widen Interstates 495 and 270, unveiled in 2017, has hit a rough patch — and it must gall Hogan to see his longtime ally, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), as a leading obstacle, for now.

A dozen prominent opponents of the plan — including Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) and U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D), Hogan’s 2014 opponent — teed off on the highway plan during a rally in Silver Spring on Monday. Although D.C.-area residents endure lengthy delays on both roads on a regular basis, the rally drew more than 300 people on a dreary, raw weeknight barely a week before Christmas.

Montgomery County’s state legislators and other officials continue to complain they are routinely denied basic information about how Hogan’s proposed public-private partnership would work, where exits will be located, how many homes will be taken and how much parkland will be lost.

The architect and chief salesman of Hogan’s plan, Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn, abruptly announced he is leaving the governor’s cabinet to return to New Mexico.

And, perhaps most crucially, Franchot, Hogan’s most vocal Democratic supporter, is signaling that much spadework remains before he will be ready to formally consider a crucial set of amendments to the highway plan in the Board of Public Works. Franchot’s chief of staff, Len Foxwell, said on Tuesday it is “highly improbable” the vote on the Board of Public Works will occur anytime soon.

In the meantime, Franchot’s vote clearly rests on the governor’s willingness to make significant changes to his proposal.

“The fat lady has not sung,” said businessman Emmet Tydings, a longtime advocate for enhanced transportation capacity and a supporter of Hogan’s plan.

Tydings conceded that Monday night’s rally contributed to the perception that opponents are riding a wave of momentum, but he expects the Hogan plan “to fly — in some form.”

“It’s just like political campaigns,” he said. “The highs are really high and the lows are really low. And they can flip on a dime.”

Franchot succeeded in getting the Maryland Department of Transportation’s amendments bumped from the Dec. 4 meeting of the Board of Public Works to Dec. 18, and then from Dec. 18 into the new year (Hogan canceled the Dec. 18 BPW meeting entirely).

Now Franchot’s team is making it clear it wants a wholesale review of how the widening of the two roads — and the American Legion Bridge, a project Hogan recently announced with Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) — would be handled, even if doing so requires a delay in the timetable the governor clearly wants.

In a post on Facebook on Tuesday night, Franchot called for “a new and better approach to our region’s traffic problems” in the new year.

“Let’s reach out and earn the support of our local governments and the communities they represent,” he wrote. “Let’s bring our region’s lawmakers to the table and make a good faith effort to understand and work through their concerns.”

“Let’s be open, transparent and candid with the taxpayers who pay our salaries,” he continued. “Let’s recognize that added road capacity alone will never solve our mobility challenges, and that it will also require a sustained investment in transit and 21st century demand management. Let’s move forward on the basis of good data, sound planning and best practices.”

Although Hogan told reporters Tuesday, “We have already passed the entire plan through the Board of Public Works,” he is aware that the reality is more complicated.

Days of anguished phone calls between Hogan and Franchot and negotiations between top aides have yet to yield anything close to a breakthrough.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Public Works is Jan. 8, the day lawmakers return to Annapolis for the start of the 2020 session.

Franchot, the swing vote on Hogan’s one bridge/two highway P3 and a potential candidate for governor in 2022, starts the new year with all the leverage he could ask for.

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Hogan’s Highway Plan Hits Rough Patch and Franchot Is, For Now, the Biggest Obstacle