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Lawmakers Seek Local Veto Power of Toll Road Projects in Md.

The Capital Beltway. Photo by Angela Breck.

A growing group of Maryland lawmakers is rallying behind a measure that would effectively give local government leaders veto power over state-backed toll road projects.

Currently the state must obtain the approval of a majority of impacted counties before building a toll road, bridge or tunnel in the nine counties that comprise the Eastern Shore — Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester.

Senate Bill 229 and House Bill 292 would expand that power to all 23 counties and Baltimore City.

“It’s an equity issue,” said Del. Mary D. Lehman (D-Prince George’s). “The law has been on the books for 42 years. … There should be local review.”

The measure comes as the Hogan administration moves forward with plans to renovate and expand the American Legion Bridge and widen the western-most portion of the Capital Beltway and the southern portion of Interstate 270.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), an advocate of public-private partnerships, has won approval for a financing program in which the state contracts with a private firm to finance and build the projects. The company — or most likely, a mammoth consortium of firms — would gain the right to set toll rates on the new lanes and keep the revenue those lanes generate for five decades or more.

Commuters would retain the right to use lanes that are currently free at no cost. The state’s concessionaire would be required to maintain the rebuilt roadways for the length of the contract.

Lehman insisted that the bill is not a backdoor attempt to derail Hogan’s plans but rather is intended to guarantee that local impact is addressed.

A similar bill died last year without a vote. The revived measure, introduced on Friday, already has twice as many cosponsors as it had in 2019.

The Senate version, being sponsored by Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), has 15 cosponsors, while the House version, sponsored by Lehman and Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), has 52 cosponsors.

“The state’s top-down toll road planning has disregarded serious dialogue concerning financial risks,” Lee said. “This bill will restore Maryland’s half-century tradition of collaboration and consultation between the state and the counties.”

In a letter to a House committee last year, the Maryland Department of Transportation argued that the measure would give local leaders the ability to thwart efforts to ease regional traffic problems.

Doing so, the agency argued, would “sound the death knell for any kind of meaningful congestion relief” on the Washington, D.C., region’s most overtaxed roadways.

But Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, told the House Environment and Transportation Committee last year that the bill is needed to protect commuters who lack the ability to use “express lanes” whose tolls surge when there’s a spike in demand.

“When express toll lanes are added to highways, immediately a hierarchy emerges that stratifies motorists by income,” he told the panel. “Lexus lanes distribute a public good based on income. We call that system a plutocracy.”

Unlike last year, the Lehman-Lierman bill is bipartisan. Two Republicans gave signed on to the House version, including Del. Sid Saab (R-Anne Arundel), the deputy minority whip.

Gary V. Hodge, vice chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, said the increase in support is due to the “mounting concerns” that legislators and local officials have about the “serious unanswered questions” that surround the financing scheme Hogan wants to use.

John Townsend II, head of media and government affairs for AAA of the Mid-Atlantic, said local governments “should have a say and inputs on express lanes and toll roads, but not veto power.”

This report included material generated by our news partners, WTOP. 

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Lawmakers Seek Local Veto Power of Toll Road Projects in Md.