Three bills backed by opponents of the Hogan administration’s plan to widen two highways in the Washington, D.C., suburbs cleared a major hurdle on Saturday and were headed to the House of Delegates floor for likely passage there.
The three bills were approved by the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Saturday morning.
One of the measures, House Bill 1220, would require top state officials to establish maximum toll rates for motorists who use new Express Toll Lanes on the American Legion Bridge, the Capital Beltway or Interstate 270.
Another measure, House Bill 1249, would hold the Maryland Department of Transportation to public promises it has made regarding the project, including future local transit funding and the right of transit buses to use toll lanes free of charge.
House Bill 1424 would require additional financial oversight of future public-private partnership (P3) projects.
MDOT opposed all three measures.
Their passage in Environment & Transportation sets the stage for a floor vote as early as Sunday, with final approval possible as soon as Monday.
The committee is chaired by Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of the bill to strip toll-setting authority for the Hogan administration’s P3 project from the Maryland Transportation Authority. Instead, the Board of Public Works, made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer, would have to go on record setting maximum toll charges, a potentially fraught act for the three officials, some of whom have aspirations beyond their current post.
“I’m very encouraged,” said Tony Hausner, a Montgomery County resident who is active in the group Citizens Against Beltway Expansion. “These bills will help insure that wiser decisions are made about the transportation challenges that exist in the Washington area.”
Hausner said the administration’s planned road widenings “will just make matters worse, particularly as it relates to air pollution. Transit solutions would make much more sense.”
Emmet Tydings, a business-owner and transportation advocate, expressed disappointment in the committee’s votes.
“They’re a partisan P3 stopper,” he said. “Congestion is going to get far, far worse” unless Hogan’s “historic” road-widening plans move forward, he added.
Tydings also warned that the measures would likely dampen investor interest in working with MDOT. “If any one of these bills moves forward, I think it will stop the project,” he said.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced plans to use the state’s existing public-private partnership law to widen the roads in 2017. In 2019 he signed a “Capital Beltway Accord” with Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) to widen and rebuild the American Legion Bridge.
The bridge project will be folded into the state’s solicitation for private firms who wish to bid on the highway widening. The state is reaching out to potential vendors to determine who is qualified to handle the $9 billion to $11 billion contract.
MDOT did not immediately react to the committee’s votes, but in letters to Barve and his colleagues earlier this year, the agency said the proposals would hinder the state’s ability to bring congestion relief to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Although the three measures enjoy widespread support among Montgomery’s State House delegation and County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), they face an uncertain future in the state Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) told Maryland Matters she opposes any legislation that risks slowing or imperiling Hogan’s efforts to bring congestion relief to the D.C. area.
“I’m looking to move forward on transportation,” she said. “I look at these bills — I have to read them yet — but I don’t want to do anything that looks like it is stopping the flexibility and stopping the moving forward… and I just don’t want to see roadblocks put up.”
Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) is another backer of the governor’s plans who could use his considerable clout to help keep the administration’s plans on track.
With this year’s session at risk of being cut short due to COVID-19 concerns, a delaying action by either of those influential lawmakers could prove decisive.
Transit maintenance bill advances
A measure to force the Hogan administration to spend more money maintaining the state’s transit systems was approved by the House of Delegates 95-36 on Saturday.
The vote was largely along party lines, though Del. Paul Corderman (R-Washington), voted in favor of the measure.
House Bill 368 would require the state to spend an additional $500 million on bus and subway upkeep over the next six years. The measure was crafted in the wake of the Maryland Transit Administration’s 2019 “10-Year Capital Needs Inventory,” a General Assembly-mandated review of the state’s transit stock.
“By MDOT’s own accounting, MTA faces a $2 billion gap over the next 10 years in what it needs simply to remain in a state of good repair,” said Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), the primary sponsor of the bill.
“Our bill steps in to say we simply have to keep our riders safe. We have to keep our buses and our trains running. And that means we need to send some additional funding to MTA for capital needs.”
Lierman pointed to a recent Federal Transit Administration report that showed that commuters in Maryland face bus and rail breakdowns far more often that riders in other states.
In response to the FTA report, the state noted that it’s engaged in an aggressive catch-up program and will soon have “one of the youngest rail fleet systems in the U.S.”
Brian O’Malley, President of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, called the bill “critical for riders.”
“Infrastructure is already breaking down,” he added. “We either pay now or pay more later.”
In a letter to the head of the House Appropriations Committee, MDOT said Lierman’s bill would undercut its efforts to “carefully assess operating budget needs and control growth in the operating budget. Establishing minimum budget levels undermines this effort and reduces MDOT’s ability to respond to changing market conditions.”
Hogan has boasted repeatedly that he has spent more money on transit than any governor in state history — including measures to fund the Purple Line and put the D.C.-area’s Metro system on a firmer financial footing.
On the House floor Saturday, Republicans appealed to their colleagues to reject the bill, arguing that approving it could jeopardize transportation projects in their districts.
The Senate crossfile, SB 424, is sponsored by Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery). Given that the legislature is running low on days, O’Malley said, “I am asking the Senate to take this seriously and move it.”
Aid for Local Businesses
The House on Saturday also approved a measure to provide tax credits and grants to small businesses impacted by construction of the Purple Line.
HB 540 was crafted by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) in response to complaints from mom-and-pop store owners. They have said the disruption caused by the project was harming their businesses, prompting fears they made not survive the two-year construction period.
As amended, the bill will create a $1 million state refundable tax credit program and a Purple Line Construction Grant Program to assist impacted businesses.
The state’s Department of Commerce would develop and administer both programs.
Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) is sponsoring the Senate version of Wilkins’ bill.
MARC extension study approved
The House gave tentative approval on Saturday to a measure requiring the Maryland Department of Transportation to study the possible extension of MARC rail service to Western Maryland.
Under the measure, sponsored by Corderman, MDOT would have to develop recommendations on the feasibility and cost of running trains into the state’s western panhandle.
Currently one spur of the the MARC Brunswick runs between Frederick and Union Station in Washington, D.C., while another spur runs between D.C. and Brunswick, with a handful of trains each day serving the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.
MDOT’s report would by due by Dec. 31, 2022. Because of the tight timeframe, legislative analysts estimate it would cost $3.7 million over two years for consultants to produce the analysis Corderman’s bill would require.