As Dispute Over Purple Line Rages, Lawmakers Press MDOT for Info. on Highway Project Bidders

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), with then-state transportation secretary Pete K. Rahn behind him, announcing his plans to widen Interstates 270 and 495. Maryland Governor's Office photo by Steve Kwak

Amid a contract dispute involving the Purple Line that a leading lawmaker described as “very serious,” key members of the General Assembly served notice on Monday that they intend to exercise rigorous oversight over the Hogan administration’s plan to add express toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

In a lengthy letter to Transportation Secretary Greg Slater, the legislators demanded a detailed history of the four firms that have expressed interest in bidding for the $9 billion to $11 billion contract, their track record on big-ticket projects around the globe, and how they would handle disputes with the state or their contractors.

The lawmakers’ request comes as a dispute between Purple Line Transit Partners and its contractors, Purple Line Transit Constructors, threatens to halt the project mid-stream.

The companies are working on a 16-mile, $2 billion light rail link connecting New Carrollton and Bethesda that is supposed to begin partial operation next year.

In 2017 Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced plans to create a public-private partnership similar to the Purple Line to add variable toll lanes to three congested highways in the Washington, D.C., suburbs –– I-495, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Now whittled to two roads, the project is the governor’s top transportation priority for his second term.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery)

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Transportation & Environment panel and one of the authors of the letter, noted that Maryland has only had two P3 projects since it passed special legislation a decade ago.

“The first one was the Purple Line, where there was a lot of trust. The second one is this [highway] project, where it’s going to have to be trust but verify,” he said in an interview. “We definitely can’t find ourselves in a similar situation in seven years with this project.”

In the letter to Slater, lawmakers seek a raft of information:

  • A listing of every project in which the firms expressed interest or were awarded the work
  • How they deal with requests for information from legislators and auditors, and how they intend to engage with communities impacted by the highway project
  • How the firms dealt with disputes over the relocation of utility infrastructure
  • How potential private-sector designers of the toll lanes intend to manage impacts on surrounding roads
  • How potential contractors made good on promises to maintain existing “free” lanes
  • Whether previous P3 projects built by the potential Maryland bidders allowed free access to mass transit vehicles
  • What recourse debt-holders had on other projects the firms were involved in

In a statement provided to Maryland Matters on Monday night, Slater said MDOT is reviewing the letter.

“Although we are not ready to provide detailed responses quite yet, it’s important to note two important components,” he wrote.

“The P3 method of delivery for the highway project is structurally different than the P3 structure used for the Purple Line project. Since we are in an open procurement, any responses will have to work their way through a legal review as to not impact the competitive nature. I look forward to sharing those details with the House committee leadership in our response.”

In addition to Korman, the letter was signed by Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee; Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Motor Vehicle & Transportation Subcommittee.

Korman said it’s particularly important how the firms expressing interest in the express toll lane project in Maryland — Accelerate Maryland Partners; Itinera Infrastructure & Concessions, on behalf of Accelerate MarylandExpress Partners; Cintra Global, Meridiam Capital Express and John Laing Investments Limited, on behalf of Capital Express Mobility Partners; and ACS Infrastructure Development, on behalf of Potomac Mobility Group — would resolve disputes.

“Sometimes P3’s work, some times they don’t,” Korman said. “And we need to see how these players have acted in other situations.”

Although Saturday was the deadline for resolving the Purple Line stalemate, he said it’s unclear where things stand.

“MDOT hasn’t said anything and Purple Line Transit Partners hasn’t said anything. So they’re not even sharing basic information about this multi-billion dollar mega-project that may be in the process of crumbling,” Korman said.

“The fact they feel no need to communicate with the public… is just a terrible way to do business.”

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