Panel Chairman Expresses Skepticism Over ‘County Consent’ Bill

House Environment and Transportation Chairman Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery)

A measure known in Annapolis as the “county consent bill“ would give the 14 counties west of the Chesapeake Bay and the City of Baltimore new power in deciding whether big-ticket transportation projects move forward.

The nine counties of the Eastern Shore already have the ability to block new toll facilities — bridges, tunnels and highways — thanks to a law that’s been on the books since 1978.

For that reason, supporters of House Bill 292 and Senate Bill 229 say the two measures are pretty straightforward.

The bill is a top priority in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where local officials are eager to position themselves to influence the Hogan administration’s push to widen two highways and rebuild the American Legion Bridge.

It’s also a priority for Anne Arundel County, already home to the dual-span Chesapeake Bay Bridge and potentially a third crossing.

Ironically, the bill ran into a buzz saw of tough questions from a veteran lawmaker — a powerful committee chairman — who represents one of those counties the measure is intended to benefit the most.

Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, peppered backers of the measure at a bill hearing on Thursday, suggesting that if the legislation were to be approved, it would give Maryland counties the ability to thwart the economic ambitions of a neighbor.

For example, he said, local officials in Montgomery County could block a transportation project popular in Frederick County.

“If this were to become law, the Montgomery County Council could just stop it, right from the very beginning, and not negotiate,” he suggested to a panel of the bill’s supporters. “You think that’s perfectly fine for a county to just say, from the very beginning, ‘We’re not interested,’ end of conversation.”

When they responded to his query, Barve interrupted. “So I guess your answer is yes.”

The bill’s chief sponsor in the House, Del. Mary A. Lehman (D-Prince George’s), is a former county council member. She rejected the notion that local leaders would refuse to engage in dialogue on a major project.

“Some of the most intense, prolonged and in-depth debates I had in my eight years on the council were on land use and siting issues, by far,” she said. “I think the people who get elected to those positions are going to be thoughtful and deliberative.”

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) unveiled plans to widen Interstate 270, the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in 2017. His initiative caught most local leaders by surprise.

While the B-W Parkway portion of the plan has apparently been put on hold, Hogan has pressed forward with the other components of his proposal, amending it as needed to win needed approvals and adding the American Legion Bridge after striking an agreement with Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D).

Throughout the process, state transportation officials have been accused of ignoring local input and denying requests from county planners for information.

Pete Baron, a top aide to Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), told Barve’s committee that local officials aren’t looking to veto big projects blindly. Instead, he insisted, they want to be included in the discussions.

“What we’re asking for is a seat at the table equal to our sister counties,” he said.

Jennifer Russel, chairwoman of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, said the Lehman bill would “hijack” the Hogan administration’s proposed public-private partnership.

“There is no other money and you know that,” she said.

Russel said giving counties a voice in controversial projects would subject Washington, D.C.-area commuters to “a future of endless congestion with no hope of relief.”

Lehman said she would oppose a repeal of the existing law that gives Eastern Shore counties the right to block state-backed toll facilities.

“This is about fairness,” she said. “There’s just no rationale for one-third of the counties in the state to have consent while the other two-thirds do not.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.