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Official in Charge of Hogan’s Highway Widening Project Departs — Impact Unclear

“I’m going to sit down with the team and create some new and different ways that we can try and engage with the community,” Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said Wednesday. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Lisa B. Choplin, the official in charge of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s ambitious plan to widen two Washington, D.C.-region highways and rebuild the American Legion Bridge, retired at the end of December, the state Department of Transportation confirmed on Wednesday.

Choplin, 55, had spent three decades in state government. No reason for her retirement could immediately be learned.

According to her recently updated LinkedIn page, she took over the State Highway Administration’s design-build program in 1999, “when it was still in its infancy.”

“She was a key contributor in the development of the MDOT SHA’s $2.4 billion Intercounty Connector project, Maryland’s largest design-build project ever, providing advice on project delivery strategies and procurement,” her bio states.

Choplin did not respond to an email request for comment from a reporter, but the agency released a statement calling her “an amazing and dedicated public servant who retired from state service after 30 years as eligible.”

MDOT asserted that Choplin’s retirement would not impact the progress of Hogan’s top transportation priority.

“The team has a strong group of experts from both the public and private sector. A new director has not yet been selected,” the brief statement concluded.

Choplin’s departure comes at a key moment in Hogan’s $11 billion quest to build privately-financed express toll lanes along Interstates 495 and 270.

Formal proposals from the four consortiums the agency has deemed qualified to handle the project are due on Friday afternoon, and MDOT is expected to select from among nearly a dozen potential designs in the coming weeks.

The agency is also expected to choose a winning bidder by February at the latest.

Stung by the collapse of the Purple Line light rail line — like the proposed highway project, a public-private partnership, or P3 — the state has adopted a “progressive” solicitation model to bring its industry partner on board early in the process, to assist with design and help identify challenges.

Critics have long charged that Hogan, who is term limited, is trying to get a contract signed before he leaves office in January 2023. Maryland Matters reported last week on MDOT’s decision to post its formal Request for Proposals on Dec. 23, after agency employees had left for the Christmas holiday.

Although the P3 plan was not on the agenda at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting, state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) raised the issue with Transportation Secretary Greg Slater, and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) offered pointed follow-up questions.

A former legislator from Bethesda, Kopp said the recent news reports were disconcerting to some residents, and she urged him to bring “a greater sense of transparency and understanding” to the project.

MDOT developed its RFP “and put it on the street… before we get the Environmental Impact Statement,” she added, echoing a complaint voiced by a leading legislator this week.

“There is a sense of momentum for a project that a lot of people who live in the area still don’t understand and believe will bring problems of its own,” Kopp told Slater. “It seems to have been everything taking place off-stage for the last half-year. … I think a great deal more public discussion is required.”

Slater pledged to “try really hard to engage communities, no matter how they feel about this project,” adding “the message has been received on that.”

“I will continue to try to work on that personally,” the secretary said. “I’m going to sit down with the team and create some new and different ways that we can try and engage with the community.”

Kopp said that by the time the proposed contract is presented to the Board of Public Works for approval, a process expected to occur next summer, “there will be so much invested in it by that point and so far down the track, it’s difficult to believe it will not go forward.”

Franchot called the state’s truncated RFP process “a quick turnaround.” A potential swing vote on the project, the comptroller described himself as a “general supporter” of Hogan’s plan.

The only declared candidate for governor in 2022, Franchot pressed Slater to be more forthcoming about the “lessons learned” from the Purple Line.

IJ Global, a London-based infrastructure financing newsletter, appeared to be the first media outlet to have reported on Choplin’s retirement.

Whether she intends to retire completely or perhaps seek work in the private sector is unknown.

Amanda Allen, Hogan’s former director of intergovernmental affairs, left state government last January to become Government and Community Affairs manager at Transurban North America, based in Tysons, Va. Transurban is believed to be the frontrunner to win the highway contract.

John O’Neill, the former executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, has recently become a “senior tolling and mobility advisor” at Gannett Fleming, a firm that is a part of Accelerate MarylandExpress Partners, another of the consortia bidding on the project.

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Official in Charge of Hogan’s Highway Widening Project Departs — Impact Unclear