An influential committee chairman has introduced a measure — the “No Lexus Lane Act” — that would require top state officials to publicly approve toll rates on the Hogan administration’s high-profile plan to widen two Washington, D.C.-area highways and future big-ticket projects.
The measure is one of a handful of proposals that seek to regulate projects that tap private funds, so-called “public-private partnerships.” The bills all go before a legislative panel on Thursday afternoon.
Three of the proposals drafted in response to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen two interstate highways are thought to have an excellent chance of getting through the House of Delegates, though it’s unclear how they will fare in the state Senate.
In a bid to ease bottlenecks in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which are among the worst in the nation, Hogan announced plans in 2017 to widen portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. He has since added the widening of the American Legion Bridge to the project.
To keep a lid on state borrowing, the state wants private-sector firms to finance and manage construction in exchange for the right to set and collect tolls for 50 years or longer.
Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the House Environment & Transportation Committee, is backing a measure that would cap tolls on P3 projects at 10 cents a mile –– a rate so low, no vendor could make the financing work.
The bill would allow a private firm to collect tolls above $0.10 per mile “with the approval of the Board of Public Works,” made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, meaning at least two of the three would have to publicly sign off on tolls likely to be significantly above a dime per mile.
“I want to make sure that elected officeholders who are accountable to the voters have the final say on whether or not my constituents are going to pay a toll,” Barve said in an interview.
Among the other bills likely to get a favorable reaction in the House, one seeks to hold the Hogan administration to promises it has made, while another would boost the legislature’s role in future P3 projects.
House Bill 1249, dubbed the “Maryland State Department of Transportation Promises Act of 2020,” is sponsored by 49 Democratic lawmakers from Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties, and would put a laundry list of pledges made by Hogan’s new Transportation secretary, Greg Slater, into law.
- That at least 10% of the revenue generated from I-495 and I-270 Express Toll Lanes go to increased local transit projects;
- That the Maryland Department of Transportation enter into a “memorandum of understanding” with local governments impacted by the P3;
- That buses and other mass transit vehicles be allow to use new express toll lanes free of charge;
- That the new American Legion Bridge have a dedicated bike and pedestrian lane;
- That no private land be taken by the state until the P3 agreement is finalized;
- That MDOT initiate “a community benefit agreement that demonstrates positive net economic, environmental and health benefits to the state”;
- That MDOT “share origin and destination data and traffic and revenue model data” with county planners (subject to restrictions on information deemed proprietary);
- That initial project expenses paid out of the Transportation Trust Fund and loans from the Maryland Transportation Authority be repaid by the vendor or tolls;
- That no expenses be incurred beyond what is authorized in the state’s transportation program as of Oct. 1;
- That MDOT not submit a concessionaire contract to the Board of Public Works until a federal environment review is complete and available to the public;
- That future toll “adjustments” be subject to a public hearing in the county where the toll road is located;
- That Maryland attempt to engage with Virginia on a “transit study of the American Legion Bridge corridor”; and
- That the MdTA complete a monorail feasibility study.
“It’s positive that MDOT and Secretary Slater and the Comptroller and the governor have put in a bunch of provisions that many of us think are important,” said Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), the measure’s chief sponsor. “This bill just makes sure that they’re held to account.”
The lawmaker said he was motivated to craft his proposal in part by the administration’s reversal on its pledge to build a separate bike/pedestrian lane on the new Nice-Middleton Bridge being planned in Southern Maryland.
“We know from the Harry Nice Bridge that sometimes they make promises they don’t keep, and we don’t want that to happen again,” Korman said.
Transportation advocates have long pushed for the widening of I-270, the Beltway and the American Legion Bridge, site of long and grueling backups.
But environmentalists and others have argued that MDOT’s plans focus too much on single-occupancy vehicles and not enough on boosting transit use.
Korman’s bill does not seek to block the state’s push to build new lanes.
“This bill is not how I would do this project,” he said. “This bill is putting into statute the promises that they have made.”
The third bill likely to win approval from the House, HB 1424, is nearly identical to a bill the chamber passed in 2019 that died in the Senate.
It would establish a Public-Private Partnership Oversight Review Board to keep tabs on P3 projects and require additional financial reviews. It would also require that an environmental review be completed before a project can be officially designated a P3.
A new provision in the bill would give the General Assembly a year to remove a P3 designation from a project if lawmakers don’t like how the procurement is unfolding.
“We have ceded the authority to the Board of Public Works,” said the measure’s sponsor, Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery).
“If you have two votes on the Board of Public Works, the legislature has no ability to do anything to prevent that. This bill is about restoring the balance that our constituents expect from us when we are sent here –– that we have a role to play in large decisions that impact the state.”
A measure to give all Maryland counties the right to veto toll-financed road and bridge projects (the “county consent” bill ) is not expected to advance. The nine counties that comprise the Eastern Shore have had such power since 1978, but Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) this week filed legislation to repeal that law.
The House Environment and Transportation Committee will hold a public hearing on the three bills and other transportation measures on Thursday at 1 p.m. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Transportation had not taken a position on any of them.