Backers of a measure that would hold Maryland transportation officials to the promises they have made on a controversial highway project sought to generate momentum for the legislation on Wednesday.
House Bill 67 and Senate Bill 843, “The Maryland Department of Transportation Promises Act of 2021,” seeks to codify the public statements that agency officials have offered in support of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen portions of Interstates 495 and 270 and modernize the American Legion Bridge.
A similar measure enjoyed robust support in the House of Delegates last year, passing 97-36, but it died without action in the Senate.
This year the bill has a Senate cross-file and an enthusiastic champion, Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s).
At a virtual rally Wednesday, lawmakers said that while they appreciate the various statements that Hogan (R), Transportation Secretary Greg Slater and others have made on behalf of their plan to build high occupancy toll lanes on the two highways, it is important to have those pledges backed up by law.
“Secretary Slater is very nice, but I remember the [Gov.] Harry Nice Bridge,” said Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), referring to the Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland. “We were told it was going to include a bike and pedestrian separated lane. When the actual contract was awarded, that was mysteriously missing.”
Korman said the state has already broken several promises on the I-495/I-270 project — including “that no contract will be submitted to the Board of Public Works (BPW) until the Environmental Impact Statement was complete. And lo and behold, fast-forward a year, and the exact opposite has happened.”
The “promises” bill, as backers have dubbed it, would codify several of the pledges that have been made on the highway-widening project. Among them:
- At least 10% of the toll revenue that remains after construction must be transferred to the special fund to bolster mass-transit
- Transit vehicles will be allowed to use the privately-financed toll lanes free of charge
- The refurbished American Legion Bridge will have a separate pedestrian and bicycle lane
- MDOT may not use state funds to acquire land for the project before the BPW approves an agreement between with Accelerate Maryland Partners, the concessionaire chosen to do “pre-development” work on the project
- MDOT would be required to share commuter data with local planners
- Transportation Trust Fund expenditures and state loans must be repaid by vendors or tolls
- No state funds can be used to support the project beyond those already allocated
- MDOT would be prohibited from submitting a contract to the BPW before a final environmental impact statement “that complies with the National Environmental Policy Act” is available
- Toll adjustments must be subject to public hearings in the county in which the project is located
- The state would be required to conduct a transit study with Virginia
At a budget hearing earlier this month, Slater sought to clarify the commitment he made to the General Assembly in January 2020.
While he acknowledged that MDOT will present a “developer” contract to the Board of Public Works in April or May — prior to the completion of the final environmental impact document — the agency doesn’t plan to present a contract “which we were always defining as construction” until 2022.
“The contract that will go to the board in April/May will not result in any shovel in the ground of any transportation solution,” he added.
“Just to be clear,” Korman replied, “when you say, ‘we were defining it that way,’ that’s not you and I, that’s you and MDOT.”
“Correct,” Slater said.
In written testimony submitted to the legislature, MDOT Legislative Officer Melissa Einhorn said the Benson/Korman bill would send the private sector a message that the state “cannot reliably provide a stable, competitive, and predictable set of policies on which they can rely throughout the procurement process.”
“Taking this action would establish a concerning precedent for interfering in future procurements which would introduce a measure of uncertainty in the private sector in conducting business with the State of Maryland,” she wrote.
Einhorn said if the state doesn’t tap private financing to enact Hogan’s plan, MDOT would have to “cancel or defer all other transportation capital projects in the State” for 11 years to address traffic needs in the I-495/I-270 corridor.
“With all these concerns in mind, we request the Committee avoid any actions this legislative session that would negatively effect, disrupt, or even derail an ongoing procurement of this magnitude,” she concluded. “The risks and the costs are just too high.”
At the Wednesday rally, Benson insisted that she and Korman “are not trying to stop the project.”
“We want to say to the Board of Public Works that we are very serious about this bill that we are proposing,” she said.
The promises bill is likely to win approval again in the House of Delegates. What was unclear on Wednesday is whether it is beginning to generate momentum in the Senate.
Members of the Montgomery Senate delegation were not available for comment on Wednesday.
In an interview with podcast host Ryan Miner last summer, Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said “my flag to carry is defending the [traffic relief for] I-270.” King and the late Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) were viewed as instrumental in keeping the 2020 promises bill from moving forward.
During the Senate Budget & Taxation hearing on the bill Wednesday, Adrian R. Gardner, general counsel for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said the measure is urgently needed — and he accused the state of over-reach.
“For no compelling whatsoever, MDOT is doing everything possible to get federal approvals for the entire project, the entire Beltway project, even as it promises to work in phases,” he said.
“It’s tantamount to asking for a blank check,” he added.