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Transportation Management Giant Reverses Course, Eyes Bid for Md. Highway Project

Traffic on the American Legion Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Transurban, the transportation management giant that six months ago said it would take “a pass” on Maryland’s plan to expand two Washington, D.C.-area highways and the American Legion Bridge, now says it is very interested in bidding on the project.

The reversal appears to reflect the changing political dynamic over a highly controversial multibillion-dollar project.

In an interview this week with Maryland Matters, Transurban North America President Jennifer Aument said the state’s political leaders have recently demonstrated a welcome flexibility — a willingness to adapt the project to meet community and political concerns.

“What we’re hearing out of Maryland officials now suggests that they are refining the process to ensure that they have the flexibility to be able to provide the time to understand community concerns [and] to be able to make refinements to the design along the way,” Aument said.

“We’re quite interested and hope that the project moves forward so we’ll have an opportunity to make an investment in that market.”

Aument was part of a delegation that accompanied Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on a trip to Australia earlier this year. The Australian-based company already manages key stretches of highway in Northern Virginia.

The fate of Hogan’s plan to add four lanes to the American Legion Bridge and Interstates 495 and 270 is uncertain. Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), who serves alongside Hogan on the three-person Board of Public Works, is demanding a new “data-driven” and collaborative approach that wins the support for the highway expansion of local officials in the impacted counties.

Franchot succeeded in getting changes to the project’s phasing through the BPW in June — one of several amendments to which Hogan (R) agreed in order to win the comptroller’s support. Franchot’s chief of staff, Len Foxwell, told Maryland Matters that the scope of the additional changes — and public outreach — the comptroller wants make it “highly improbable” that revisions to the administration’s public-private partnership proposal will be considered any time soon.

In the interview, Aument did not mention Franchot or the imminent departure of Maryland’s hard-charging Transportation secretary, Pete K. Rahn, who has been accused by some transportation officials and Maryland politicians of running an opaque approval process for the project so far.

Jennifer Aument, president, Transurban North American. Company photo

But she stressed that Transurban, which manages a 50-mile network of express toll lanes in Northern Virginia and billions of dollars in similar projects around the world, believes in working with communities where projects will be located.

“On the I-495 Express Lanes [in Virginia], we went through lots of different changes to be able to meet community needs, to be able to reduce property impact, to be able to better serve activity centers, to be able to better connect to the Metro,” she said. “And so Maryland needs a process that enables them to be able to make those changes along the way. And that’s what we’re hopeful that they’re looking at now.”

Aument told investors in April that Transurban intended to take a “pass” on Maryland’s highway-expansion despite having “a great market” and “a potentially great project.”

“That project has a complex political and economic path ahead, so that means a lot of risk and a lot or years before it can deliver toll revenue,” Aument said at the time, according to the industry news website Inframation.

“What we saw six months ago was what we would reference as a hard-bid approach,” Aument told Maryland Matters on Tuesday, “’Here’s the program, let’s put it out and people can come and bid it.’ … We didn’t think there was a lot of flexibility to address community concerns.”

Hogan invited Aument to travel with him to Australia as part of the state’s official delegation on a 10-day “investment and trade mission” in late September. Transurban also contributed $25,000 to Hogan’s inaugural committee early this year.

Tom Osborne, head of IFM Investors, a global infrastructure investment firm, was also part of the delegation to Australia, which included top officials from several other states. (Hogan chairs the National Governors Association and has made infrastructure a top priority for his yearlong term at NGA.)

Transurban’s desire to bid on Hogan’s bridge and highway project is not, ultimately, a surprise, given the firm’s extensive portfolio in neighboring Virginia, where it manages express toll lanes on the Beltway, I-95 and — as of November — I-395.

Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) last month announced a “Capital Beltway Accord” through which the states will partner on extending managed lanes from the Old Dominion, across the American Legion Bridge into Maryland.

“They’ve got to be salivating at the prospect of the bridge being part of the first phase” of Maryland’s road widening, a former transportation official familiar with the region told Maryland Matters. 

The former official was granted anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

“Think of it as a competitive advantage. Who would be better positioned, given Transurban’s Virginia work, to take a project starting with the bridge and moving to [Interstate] 270 from there? You could see where they would see it as, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got the pole position on this one.’”

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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Transportation Management Giant Reverses Course, Eyes Bid for Md. Highway Project