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Analysis: A Bumpy Road to a Highway Compromise

Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker (above) helped lead a grass-roots effort to scale back Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s highway-widening plans. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Having reached a hard-fought compromise with Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) late last week, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) now appears to have a Capital region highway-widening project he can get through the Board of Public Works.

It took more than two years to reach this point, and the plan looks much different now than it did when the governor unveiled it in 2017.

Whether Hogan displayed a nimble willingness to compromise or was forced into abandoning huge chunks of a cherished priority is open to debate.

What is clear is that Hogan’s two-year effort to bring traffic relief to the congested Washington, D.C., suburbs has traveled a bumpy road.

Hogan’s initial, audacious vision was to add four lanes to three highways —  the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Two-thirds of the original proposal now appear moribund or pushed into the indefinite future. (The B-W Parkway remains in federal control, despite efforts by the state to wrestle it away.)

What remains — a plan for a new, wider American Legion Bridge and greatly expanded capacity to the western-most portion of I-495 and the southern portion of I-270, at no expense to taxpayers — would be the sort of legacy project any governor would be eager to have, one certain to improve the daily lives of thousands of commuters for some time. (After the inevitable construction delays, of course.)

Many Montgomery County leaders have cheered the latest iteration of Hogan’s plan.

Addressing the lack of capacity on the bridge — a notorious commuter “chokepoint” for hours a day — has been a county priority for at least a decade. And the new plan abandons the controversial proposal to add four lanes to the portion of the Beltway that runs from Bethesda to the Prince George’s County border, where right-of-way is at a premium and the threat to nearby homes and parkland was highest.

Observers say sustained opposition all but forced the state to backtrack.

While Hogan and his team rarely missed an opportunity to tout public opinion polls that showed support for road-widening in the capital region, the massive crowds of regular people — not just the activist class — proved to be a counter-weight that he couldn’t shake.

When Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker (D) organized an “emergency rally” on Dec. 16, on a cold pre-holiday weeknight, Hogan aides watched on the County Council’s livestream of the event. They found the speeches — given by U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D), Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) and many others — to be unpersuasive.

But the gathering, which attracted more than 300 people and generated a fair amount of media coverage, sent a clear message nonetheless.

And the Hogan team knew that Franchot, a former state delegate from the liberal bastion of Takoma Park (who still resides there) and a likely candidate for governor in 2022, was being relentlessly bombarded by the sort of homeowners — serious, sober veterans of battles past — who reside downcounty in large number.

“I feel like we were right to have played it the way we did,” said Elrich in an interview. “The residents, they kind of maintained an unrelenting pressure in all this. That was really good.”

“And their polling numbers were slipping. I think the more people realized what this entails, the less confidence people had.”

Elrich said he supports adding capacity to the Kensington/Silver Spring portion of I-495 by converting the service lane into a through-lane at rush hour. “That would add an additional lane,” he said. “That would add 25 percent… not an insignificant thing. It gets us into the realm of what’s really feasible, what really reasonable, and how do you minimize impacts.”

Said Hucker: “It really shows the power of grass-roots organizing. We always knew there were deep and broad concerns about this project. It was conceived in the dark without anyone from Montgomery and Prince George’s County.”

Hucker noted that when State Highway Administration officials briefed the public on the state’s plan last year, the sessions routinely consisted of officials talking to — but not listening to — residents who attended the gatherings.

In hindsight, that was a mistake in a community that prides itself on its deep involvement in civic issues and its commitment to thoughtful land use.

“Everybody tells me we exceeded expectations for the resistance to this project and the terrible process that advanced it,” said Hucker, who chairs the council’s transportation and environment committee. “The comptroller wisely changed his position and stood up for the county and our right to be at the table.”

Opponents say the focus now shifts to holding State Highway Administrator Gregory Slater — tapped by Hogan to succeed retiring Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn — to his promise to be more forthcoming with data related to the project.

That includes “origin and destination” information (where commuters start and end their travel), tolling algorithms and the state’s new commitment to funnel a portion of toll receipts to the counties for use beefing up transit.

Transportation advocate Emmet Tydings said the Hogan-Franchot compromise is welcome news because it moves the governor’s plan forward. But he expressed regret that the Beltway portion of the original plan has been removed.

“It’s a disappointment that a vocal minority drowns out the silent majority,” he said. “The next administration is going to have a lot of pressure to deal with I-495.”

In the meantime, Tydings said, Hogan should bask in the imminent approval of a multibillion-dollar transportation project.

“It’s a big legacy victory for Gov. Hogan,” he said. “Any other governor in the United States would love to put their name on this.”

The Board of Public Works is scheduled to take up revisions to the project on Wednesday, the day the General Assembly convenes for its 2020 session.

With Franchot on board, Hogan seems guaranteed to prevail.

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) may make the vote unanimous.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Kopp, who also serves on the panel, thanked “the dedicated citizens” for their involvement.

“Not a perfect process or result,” she wrote, “but much better than either the original proposal or the June Franchot-Hogan unworkable alternative.”

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Analysis: A Bumpy Road to a Highway Compromise