Opinion: What’s the Hurry on Governor’s I-495, I-270 Project?

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Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed I-495/I-270 project will influence transportation and economic development in the Washington region for the next 50 years. Given the potential consequence of this project, it is inexplicable why the Maryland Department of Transportation is holding the bulk of its public hearings in August.

If you have any familiarity with politics, you know that August is the Valley of Death for public participation – a time to sneak through the unwanted and unacceptable. While the August hearings will be online, the reality is that even more than ever they are totally inappropriate.

Many citizens are desperately focused on their jobs, worried about food and even being evicted. School and children are an existential preoccupation. Does school open? Are my kids safe? What do I do for child care if they are at home? These are just some of the concerns.

With an increasing COVID-19 infection rate in Maryland it is hardly the time that the public will be thinking about something that is not an immediate crisis.

Even more bizarre than the timing of the hearings is the otherworldly idea that it is OK to make $10 billion commitments to highways building without understanding whether telework and other COVID-19 effects will permanently upend traffic patterns. Will people return to normal car commuting? Will large scale telework change meetings to off-peak hours? Will mass transit revive? Will the opening up of the Silver Line to tech jobs near Dulles change commuting patterns? Will the trend of young people giving up cars and moving into the city be maintained?

Will any of the construction companies be viable enough to put up front $9 billion to $11 billion to build the project without collapsing at public expense? The saga of the Purple Line should be a cautionary tale the complexity and uncertainty of public-private partnerships.

These are confusing times. Sometimes bold action under uncertainty is warranted when you have a clear vision of the future. Sadly, this project is propelled by the cloudy vision of inertia and the fantasy of being able to say, “I built it and you did not have to pay for it.”

Most inexplicable, is why the comptroller and the governor, two savvy politicians who control the I-495/I-270 process from their positions on the Maryland Board of Public Works, would want to forge ahead with a project that could become a political albatross.

Give the public a real opportunity to understand and shape their future.

–ARTHUR KATZ

 

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