The carefully-orchestrated plan to get Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s top transportation priority to the Board of Public Works is again in danger of being thwarted by a protest lodged by a losing bidder.
The delays being forced by the protest are unwelcome news for backers of the proposal to widen portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway (I-495) in Montgomery County.
Hogan (R), who is term-limited, is set to leave office in January 2023, and the timeline to secure key approvals before he departs doesn’t have much wiggle room.
A government official told Maryland Matters late Tuesday that the state Department of Transportation’s “pre-development” contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners, the consortium chosen for the project, has slipped again due to the protest.
As a result, the officials said, the contract is not likely to get to the Board of Public Works until July.
The agency chose Accelerate Maryland Partners in February, and it hoped to get the panel’s sign-off in March or April. Officials then delayed the contract to May, but now it’s been put off further.
Accelerate Maryland Partners is a consortium spearheaded by two large Australian firms, Transurban and Macquarie Capital.
They beat out two other groups formed to pursue the lucrative project — Accelerate MarylandExpress Partners, a consortium led by Itinera Infrastructure & Concessions and Halmar International, and Capital Express Mobility Partners, led by Cintra Global, Meridiam Capital Express, John Laing Investments Limited and Ferrovial Agroman U.S. Corp.
It is not known who filed the protest, but speculation has centered around the Capital Express group. An official with Itinera told The Washington Post in March that they did not file an appeal after being passed over.
It’s also not known why the protest was filed, though observers of the project have noted that Accelerate Maryland Partners won the bid for the multi-billion dollar project despite the withdrawal of Archer-Western Construction from the consortium.
Archer-Western was part of the Accelerate Maryland partnership at the time the group was “pre-qualified” by the state. Their reason for splitting from the group has not been made public. It would not be a surprise to close observers of the project if the withdrawal of Accelerate Maryland’s construction partner is a key element of the appeal.
Debra Borden, deputy general counsel for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, briefed commissioners on the project Wednesday, telling members of the bi-county agency the Board of Public Works vote is “possibly not going to happen until June or July.”
MDOT officials have been tight-lipped about the process, citing state procurement law, and the agency has been in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General about how to proceed.
If the agency opts to press forward while the protest process plays out, it could place pressure on Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), a member of the Board of Public Works and a candidate for governor in 2022.
Franchot is a supporter of the state’s “public-private partnership” law, and he has used his position to extract significant changes to the project. He is considered a potential swing vote on the three-person panel.
MDOT did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Jeffrey T. Folden, a top Maryland State Highway Administration official, made no mention of the protest or the delay in advancing the project to the BPW when he spoke to the Montgomery County Civic Federation on Tuesday night.
He said the agency still expects to present a final contract for the first phase of the I-495/I-270 project to the BPW next summer — and that MDOT remains on track to “finalize financing by the fall of ’22, which would allow final design and construction to begin.”
Local Planners Remain Frustrated with SHA
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved a “non-concurrence” letter to the Federal Highway Administration and the State Highway Administration.
The commission, which is made up equally of representatives from Montgomery and Prince George’s, has a key role in how the highway-widening project — which includes the American Legion Bridge — moves forward.
Borden, the deputy general counsel, told commissioners that planning staff remain frustrated with the state’s insistence that it conduct an environmental review for the full 48-mile project that Hogan first announced in 2017.
The contract MDOT hopes to get to the BPW before Hogan leaves office would add four High-Occupancy Toll lanes only to a portion of the governor’s original vision — the segment between the American Legion Bridge and I-270 in Gaithersburg — that the agency has dubbed “Phase 1 South.”
“It doesn’t make any sense to have that huge study area in the [National Environmental Policy Act] study, but you’re only approved for Phase 1,” she said.
Borden said the local planners have urged MDOT to scale the study to the project, to reduce the number of conflicting issues that have be resolved.
“Because they won’t segment the NEPA study, we have to respond as if the whole NEPA study is at play,” she added. “Once this chance is gone, we won’t be able to press these environmental concerns [and] park land concerns. We lose our chance.”
Although state transportation officials and local planners have been at loggerheads through much of their discussions, Borden told the commission “there is a way forward,” but only if the state backs off its pursuit of environmental approvals for portions of the project that likely won’t occur for many years, if ever.
She praised State Highway officials for altering the plan to widen the Beltway in Bethesda in the wake of concerns regarding the Moses Morningstar Cemetery, a historically black burial area.
“It looks like they’re going to be able to avoid any physical impacts” to the site, Borden said. “And that is a good thing. We are very grateful for the fact that they are still working with us, and we’re trying to get there.”
Rockville leaders press Franchot to vote ‘no’
In a letter to Franchot on Wednesday, the mayor and city council of Rockville said it would be “unthinkable” for the state to approve a major highway-widening project based on a transportation analysis that was conducted before the pandemic.
The officials called the project “tone-deaf to environmental justice concerns,” and they said it would cause “further degradation” to the region’s “climate resiliency” goals.
They also predicted that the construction of High-Occupancy Toll lanes, which could be accessed by some — but not all — of the state roads that bisect I-270, would increase traffic on arterial roads in the central part of Montgomery County.
In addition, city leaders criticized “dynamic tolling,” widely used throughout Northern Virginia, saying it is “totally unacceptable” for the state to institute a system where people with means can buy their way out of traffic.