MDOT ‘Promises’ Bill Divides Budget Panel, Montgomery Legislators

The Capital Beltway near the Interstate 270 spur. Photo by Dave Dildine/WTOP.

Backers of the “Maryland Department of Transportation Promises Act of 2021” insist their proposal is a simple and straightforward one.

They want to hold top transportation officials to the public pledges they’ve made on behalf of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s signature transportation initiative — the reconstruction of the American Legion Bridge and the widening of two highways that run through Montgomery County.

But their proposal has divided Montgomery County’s lawmakers and the Budget & Taxation Committee. As a result, the fate of Senate Bill 843 (and its House cross-file, HB 67) is uncertain.

The House of Delegates approved an almost identical measure last year, but it died without action in the Senate. The late Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) viewed the legislation as a backdoor attempt to kill the project and helped thwart it.

This year’s bills were crafted by Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), who said he researched public commitments made by Hogan and Transportation Secretary Greg Slater over the past two years.

The measures would require that:

  • At least 10% of the toll revenue that remains after construction must be given to counties in the I-270 corridor for 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 Board of Public Works 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” has been completed.
  • 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 hearing on the bill in the Budget and Taxation Committee last week, Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) said he supports “public-private partnership” projects.

But he accused the Hogan administration of a “rush to judgement.” And in the wake of the near-collapse of the Purple Line project, Rosapepe said he lacked confidence in the state’s ability to “execute” the I-495/I-270 project well.

“I do not think that this project is being done right,” he said. “Moving forward with the project without completing the environmental impact study — that just turns the whole concept of how we do these things on its head.”

Sen. Ronald Young (D-Frederick) said “the purpose of this bill is simply to make sure that the promises made are followed.”

King told her colleagues on the tax panel that she was “worried” that the bill could jeopardize the $9 billion in private capital that will be used to build “High Occupancy Toll” lanes on the Beltway and I-270 if the project moves forward.

She did not refer to a specific part in the bill that she found troubling, but she alluded to “tons of talking points” that “construction people” in her district had provided her.

She said that commuters in her upper Montgomery district deserve relief from some of the nation’s worst traffic, and she said Hogan’s project would be built at “no taxpayer expense.”

Written testimony on the bill, from the Maryland Department of Transportation and advocates of the project, was similarly vague as to the threat the bill represents.

MDOT Legislative Officer Melissa Einhorn said the measure would erode the private sector’s confidence in the state’s ability to adhere to “a stable, competitive, and predictable set of policies on which they can rely throughout the procurement process.”

Jennifer Russel, vice chairwoman of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, called the bill “poorly drafted and inaccurate.” She charged that it “establishes nuisance requirements that will needlessly interfere with the forward-moving procurement process currently underway.”

Russel said “the tenets of the bill reflect an awkward and unusual amount of control.”

Pressed by a reporter this week, King acknowledged that there isn’t a specific provision in the bill to justify her claim that it would jeopardize the project.

“I don’t know that I have a specific thing,” she said. “It’s just that all the advocates are so worried about it, and I guess I’m just taking my cue from them.”

King said that traffic on I-270, the Beltway and the American Legion Bridge is “awful, and whatever we need to do to fix it, we have to fix it.”

The bill has been assigned to four committees — Senate Budget & Taxation and Finance, and House Appropriations and Ways & Means.

In addition to dividing the Budget & Tax panel, the measure has also divided the Montgomery’s Annapolis delegation, some of whom have been reluctant to discuss it.

Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D), vice-chairman of the Finance Committee, said he would rather not comment until B&T takes its action.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D) said “I’d like not to step on toes on that one.”

Pointing to the $250 million that the state had to pull from the Transportation Trust Fund to prop up the Purple Line when the prime subcontractor quit the project midstream, Rosapepe said P3 projects require that “the public side… have its act together.”

“It’s a good precedent that we put a little more structure, a few more guardrails, and a little more direction around how we look at these,” he said. “These kinds of projects often fail. This bill is pretty carefully crafted, drawing on the original issues that there was consensus on.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.