When the Board of Public Works voted 2-1 in January to advance a plan to widen two highways in Montgomery County, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) hailed the decision as “monumental and historic.”
The vote was also a testament to Democratic Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot’s willingness to make full use of his leverage as a member of the three-member panel.
In a Maryland Matters interview earlier this month, Franchot signaled that he has every intention of using his position as the frequent BPW swing vote over the next two years, as Hogan’s road-widening project — his top transportation priority — comes back for needed approvals.
Although the project, in its current design, is unpopular with top local officials, members of the Montgomery County state House delegation and environmentalists, Franchot also sounded very much like a man who is willing to support the broad contours of Hogan’s plan to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.
That includes the governor’s preferred financing scheme, a public-private partnership, or P3, in which investors contribute up-front funds in exchange for the right to set toll rates and keep the funds that are collected. P3 projects have lost a bit of their luster due to the near-collapse of the Purple Line transit project in Maryland.
“Will P3’s continue? Yes, they will,” Franchot said in the interview. “Because it’s a valuable concept of using private sector capital in partnership with the state on big infrastructure projects, like the Purple Line, the Beltway widening and hopefully down the road the Red Line [in Baltimore] or some version of it.”
But the comptroller said he envisions using his power on the contract-approving Board of Public Works to force changes he sees as beneficial. Franchot serves alongside Hogan and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), who has consistently voiced concerns about the highway project.
Knowing full well that Hogan needed his yes vote to advance his highway widening plan in January, Franchot forced a series of changes:
- He said the project had to be re-phased, to put the American Legion Bridge, the western-most segment of the Beltway (I-495) and the southern-most portion of I-270 first.
- Any work on the eastern-most portion of I-495 — the most politically fraught element of the project due to space constraints and neighborhood impacts — would need to be put off until a subsequent phase of the project, the comptroller said.
- Franchot insisted that the Republican governor’s highway-widening project would have to be constructed “by union workers earning union wages.”
- The concessionaire — the private-sector firm chosen to finance, build and maintain the state’s new express toll lanes on the two interstates — would have to share a portion of the revenue it collects with Montgomery County, up front, to fund local transit improvements.
- He said that mass transit buses must be allowed to use the new toll lanes free of charge, rather than sit in traffic in the no-cost lanes, and he barred the state from using its eminent domain power to seize private homes or businesses.
- And Franchot conditioned his yes vote on a MDOT pledge to study whether monorail would ease I-270 traffic between Frederick and Rockville.
At an earlier Board of Public Works meeting, Franchot pitched each item on his list to Hogan’s then-Transportation secretary, Pete K. Rahn, seated several seats away. Hogan, seated next to the comptroller, accepted each change, finally reminding the comptroller that the project was his, not Rahn’s.
In the interview earlier this month, the comptroller stressed his past support for transit funding. But he said the state’s road network also needs shoring up.
“I am also in favor of relieving some of the congestion on the Beltway, both for the commuters, local residents, and for the economy,” he said. “We have to do both.”
Franchot seemed open to the idea of adding reversible lanes on I-270, rather than two in each direction, an idea championed by Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) and others.
“I’ve met with folks that are very opposed to it and I understand where they’re coming from,” he added. “Maybe there should be some changes. I made six amendments to the previous thing, over the strong objection of the governor. He then ultimately acquiesced because he’s a functioning adult.”
A resident of Takoma Park who represented the southeast corner of Montgomery County in the House of Delegates for 20 years, Franchot said he will insist that “the state highway department reach agreement with the local authorities.”
“Everybody has to be brought to the table,” he said. “We’re going to have to feel our way through this.”
As with the vote in January, Franchot, a declared candidate for governor in 2022, recognizes he has “a certain leverage” — and he’s not afraid to use it.
“Obviously whatever is brought before the board — and it has to come back before the board — and if I’m on it and Nancy Kopp is on it, there’s a certain leverage there.”
“Every problem creates an opportunity for solution. Every difficulty, every concern, in my humble opinion, can be addressed, if people get together and discuss things in a rational way.”