Faced with mounting opposition to his plan to relieve traffic in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced on Friday that he and state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) had reached agreement on a scaled-back plan to bring “express toll lanes” to the Maryland side of the capital region for the first time.
Under the compromise, the state will focus its immediate efforts on the reconstruction and widening of the American Legion Bridge and the widening of Interstate 270 between the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Interstate 370.
The plan would largely be funded by express toll lanes on the American Legion Bridge and the southern portion of I-270. “Phase 1” of the project would also bring new lanes to the Beltway, but only on the stretch that connects the bridge and I-270.
Hogan’s plan to widen the Beltway between I-270 and the Montgomery-Prince George’s County border, which has generated widespread and persistent community opposition, have been put off, pending future negotiations with the two counties.
The compromise paves the way for the governor to retake the momentum on a project he first announced in 2017 but which sputtered when Franchot — a crucial swing vote on the Board of Public Works — balked at changes the administration wanted to make to the “public-private partnership” agreement the panel approved on a preliminary basis in June.
With Franchot now on board, a scaled-back set of changes to the massive project is back on the agenda for the Board of Public Works’ Jan. 8 meeting.
In a statement, Hogan hailed the compromise as a “major bipartisan agreement” and “a monumental achievement for our region.”
“This means that we can finally move forward on our historic interstate agreement with Virginia to build a new American Legion Bridge, and to solve what has been the number one problem in the Washington Capital Region for decades,” Hogan said.
“With this plan, no one will be required to pay any tolls, all existing lanes will remain free, and billions of dollars in road improvements will be made without any new taxes.”
In addition to prioritizing the widening of the American Legion Bridge and I-270, the compromise plan also offers the potential for greater transit funding to counties in the capital region.
State Highway Administrator Gregory Slater, who has been nominated by Hogan to succeed retiring Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn, said negotiations with “the locals and a lot of our stakeholder agencies” focused on “where we can have a much stronger component of transit in this project.”
While the exact amount of transit aid to D.C.-area counties hasn’t been determined, Slater said the state pledged “to build a model where we can really have transit payments. … Those transit payments can be done in a number of ways, and over the next year or so, as we’re competing the contract, we’re going to be working with our local government partners on what that is.”
Express toll lanes, which are in widespread use on the Beltway, I-95 and I-395 in Northern Virginia, generate funds for transit service there.
Slater said any resulting agreement between the state and the counties “will all be defined and laid out” before the Board of Public Works is asked to sign off on a contract to finance and build the new lanes.
In a post on Facebook Friday, Franchot, a potential candidate for governor in 2022, said he was “very pleased with the process and the outcome of discussions with Governor Hogan over the near-term future of his Administration’s Traffic Relief Plan.”
“This agreement will provide Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties with direct transit subsidies from the project’s toll receipts, the details of which will be specified in a Memorandum of Understanding between the state and the two counties,” Franchot wrote.
“This MOU will be agreed upon prior to the Board’s final award of a vendor contract.”
Franchot and Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) both noted that by focusing on the American Legion Bridge and I-270 — and effectively sidetracking the plan to widen the space-constrained portion of the Beltway — the Hogan administration was accepting the reality that highway expansion in the 270 corridor faces less opposition because there is more available right-of-way.
“The governor decided to focus on a project where he doesn’t have the issues that the Beltway presents,” Elrich said in an interview. “I’m pretty happy with this. It makes sense. It’s kind of what we asked to do.”
Elrich said that adding capacity to the westernmost portion of I-495 and the American Legion Bridge would benefit people who drive the Beltway through Silver Spring and Kensington. And he repeated his belief that encouraging I-95 travelers to take the Intercounty Connector to reach the American Legion Bridge will also ease traffic on the Beltway.
Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson, whose staff has accused MDOT officials of refusing to share data related to the project, said “Governor Hogan’s decision to scale back the managed lanes project is a step in the right direction.”
“I’m especially glad that he has agreed to dedicate a share of toll revenue to transit, as has been done in Virginia, and to meaningful mitigation of impacts to park property and natural resources,” Anderson added. “I will look forward to discussing the details of this new approach with MDOT and our elected leaders over the next few days.”
‘The proposal remains flawed’
The state Senate is expected to hold hearings on Slater’s nomination to lead MDOT soon. Local leaders and state legislators have praised him for his collaborative style, which they say will be a welcome change from the hard-charging Rahn, who departs on Jan 13.
In an interview, Slater said his staff is trying to figure out ways of sharing more information with local planners.
He also signaled a new flexibility to use reversible lanes north of Interstate 370, an idea championed by local officials but resisted by Rahn.
A 20-year state government veteran who came up through the ranks, Slater pledged that “trying to collaborate and bring people together and find the right solutions” will be the guiding principles of his tenure, if confirmed by the Senate.
Elrich expressed the hope that Montgomery will be able to use new state aid to resurrect the Corridor Cities Transitway and improve transit on MD 355. The transitway, a proposed rapid bus project connecting several Upcounty communities and high-tech businesses, received zero funding in the state’s latest long-term transportation spending plan.
Elrich praised Slater and Hogan for producing a “win-win” that will “profoundly” help many commuters.
“The governor, unlike the president, knows how to make a deal,” Elrich said. “Greg had said there’s a win in here, and I think Greg said, ‘Here’s your win. You’ve got consensus on a decent part of this project. You’ve got a victory here, take it.’”
Environment groups who have led opposition to Hogan’s plan expressed disappointment with the compromise announced on Friday.
“While the amendments Peter Franchot secured offer some improvement, the proposal remains flawed,” said Maryland Sierra Club Executive Director Joshua Tulkin. “This compromise will allow this flawed plan to advance, setting us further down the wrong — paved — path.”
“In the last few weeks, Peter Franchot and MDOT Acting Secretary Greg Slater have pledged increased transparency and community participation,” Tulkin added. “But actions speak louder than words. No new data has been released for public review. We have not seen any change to the fuzzy math used to justify highway expansion as being good for the climate. And yet again, the [Board of Public Works] has dropped in a proposal at the last minute.”
A leading transit advocate also expressed skepticism.
“The only thing this project will do is put money in the hands of foreign investors,” said Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition Chairman Benjamin Ross. “Traffic will back up even more than it does now at the worst choke points — the I-270-Beltway merge at the Wisconsin Avenue exit and the northbound lane merges on I-270.”