The chairman of a key House Appropriations subcommittee is publicly questioning whether Maryland’s Transportation secretary is violating his pledge regarding Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s top roads project.
In doing so, Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) has intensified the debate over an $11 billion project that Hogan has said is key to easing the capital region’s traffic woes.
The skirmish began last week when Korman took to Twitter and YouTube to question whether Transportation Secretary Greg Slater intended to keep a pledge he made to the General Assembly last year regarding widening of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.
Slater made that promise during a legislative briefing, when Korman asked a series of questions, including one about delaying action until after the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that is required by federal law.
“There will be no contract submitted to the Board of Public Works for the final award until the EIS is complete?” Korman asked.
“Yes,” Slater answered promptly.
Under a recently adopted accelerated timetable, the Department of Transportation expects to choose a specific highway-widening alignment in the next few weeks, and will select from among four companies vying for the project in early February.
The Board of Public Works will then be asked to approve the winning bidder in April or May.
To Korman, that timetable represents a broken promise.
“They don’t follow their commitments,” he said in an interview. “This is just the latest example. It’s not a surprise.”
“On 1/28/20 the @MDOTNews Secretary directly told me at a House hearing that no P3 contract for toll lane widening would be submitted to @MarylandBPW until the Environmental Impact Statement is complete.” he wrote. “Does the Dept. of Transp. plan to abide by that statement/promise?”
In a statement, MDOT said the pledge Slater offered last January remains very much intact.
“There will be no contract submitted to the Board of Public Works for the final award to construct managed lanes until the I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study Final Environmental Impact Statement is complete,” the agency wrote. “The earliest that contract would be brought to BPW would be summer 2022.”
Korman maintains the state is forging ahead with the selection of a private-sector partner — a “phase developer,” in agency-speak — in a manner that ill-serves the public.
“The Phase Developer is the entity the state of Maryland is entering a multi-decade relationship with and it is a contractual arrangement,” he wrote in an email late Tuesday.
“I asked ‘there will be no contracts submitted to the Board of Public Works until the EIS is complete’ and the Secretary responded ‘yes.’ The April/May 2021 submission to the BPW is a contract in every sense of the word.”
Korman, a lawyer who specializes in transportation and communications law, said Maryland will be “bound to that ‘Phase Developer’ and essentially subject to whatever they tell us regarding, say, utility relocation; property takings; sound walls; and so on.”
“There is no competitive process after the Phase Developer is selected,” he added.
Slater took control of MDOT 13 months ago, following the abrupt resignation of former Transportation secretary Pete K. Rahn. Like other state lawmakers and local officials, Korman views Slater to be a vast improvement.
But he remains frustrated with the agency’s approach to the planned replacement of the American Legion Bridge and the widening of the two highways.
“I like the secretary. I think he means well,” said Korman, “but you do not release something after hours on Dec. 23 if you’re trying to be open about it,” a reference to a Maryland Matters story about the Christmas week release of the request for proposals (RFP).
Toll-rate data kept private
In 2017 Hogan unveiled a plan to have private sector firms finance, build and maintain toll lanes on I-495 and I-270 in exchange for the right to set tolls and keep most of the revenue they collect.
He and Rahn pledged that both toll-lane motorists and those who use existing lanes would reach their destinations more quickly.
Ever since the plan was unveiled, members of the public and local elected leaders have sought to determine what it will cost to use the new lanes. Critics routinely refer to “express toll lanes” as “Lexus lanes,” and they claim that only the wealthy will be able to use them, a charge TransUrban, the firm that owns and operates Virginia’s toll lanes, rejects.
In its Request for Proposals, MDOT refers to a Dec. 18 letter that describes a preliminary range of tolls motorists might face. But the agency has rejected requests from legislators and journalists to disclose that information.
In a statement, the Maryland Transportation Authority, whose board will make the final decision on tolls, defended its secrecy, calling it customary on projects of this type.
“As part of the solicitation and the separate toll rate setting analysis process, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) staff shared a preliminary and pre-decisional staff toll rate proposal with all the proposers to seek their industry expertise on dynamic pricing for Maryland’s potentially first dynamically priced managed lanes,” the unsigned statement read. “This is done as part of the analysis that is presented to the MDTA board in the toll process.”
“For travelers who choose to use the additional capacity in the new managed lanes instead of the existing free lanes, toll rates on these dynamically priced managed lanes would be based on congestion-performance standards to ensure the average travel speed is 45 mph or greater…”
Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson said he was perplexed by the decision to withhold key information from the public.
“It seems to me that toll revenue assumptions are pretty material to how this project is going to work,” he said. “If you’re asking them to explain what it is they’re going to do and how they’re going to pay for it, I’m not sure why toll revenue information would be excluded.”
“Obviously there are a lot of people who’d like to know what toll rates might be, even if those numbers are estimates based on a very preliminary assessment of what it will cost to construct,” he added.
Korman said the agency’s secrecy makes it appear that toll rates have been “pre-determined, based on a letter that nobody has seen.”
“They claim that this is a way to get the genius private sector ideas to help us figure out thorny problems,” he said. “Why wouldn’t this be part of that concept?”
MDOT and planning agency choose mediator
MDOT and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission staffers have clashed over the project for months, particularly over environmental impacts and the state’s likely need for privately-held property and public parkland.
To help the two sides reach agreement on the thorny issues that must be resolved, MDOT and M-NCPPC have agreed to bring in a mediator.
Anderson said he’s not sure if the idea originated with MDOT or the Federal Highway Administration, the state’s partner on the project.
“We are happy to take up Greg’s suggestion to participate in mediation, which I understand was encouraged by the feds,” Anderson said. “As to how significant it will be, or how productive, I just don’t know. I think there’s quite a broad range of issues which we think require resolution before we can be in a position to support the project.”
In a statement, MDOT said it is “committed to working collaboratively with all our agency partners.”
“There are a lot of technical aspects to work through to have meaningful positive outcomes within the program. In the ongoing effort to minimize impacts and address stakeholder concerns, both MDOT and M-NCPPC have agreed to utilize a neutral, third-party mediator to ensure the [National Environmental Policy Act] process results in the best outcome considering the needs of both agencies and all stakeholders. Aside from those technical aspects, a positive collaboration is key to finding the best solution in the process.”
Neither agency would identify their chosen mediator.