Opinion: Comptroller Franchot Is Right to Support Phase 1 of the Md. P3 Program

Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance photo.

The recent guest commentary by Maryland Advocates for Sustainable Transportation unfairly attacks Comptroller Peter Franchot and continues to propagate a series of misrepresentations about Maryland’s proposed public-private partnership to add new managed lanes to the American Legion Bridge and I-270 [“Open Letter to Comptroller About Toll Lane Expansion,” Maryland Matters, May 6]. As we have learned in the recent past, just repeating fake news does not make it real.

The commentary continues to cite the costs and impacts of implementing toll lanes on sections of I-495 east of the I-270 spur that are not even part of Phase 1 of the P3 program. This is highly misleading, as the Board of Public Works will only be voting on a pre-development agreement for Phase 1 of the project, namely the improvements to the American Legion Bridge and I-270. The comptroller has indicated he is willing to support this first phase of the project, which only shows that he is looking at the facts and making the right decision. This portion of the project, which Montgomery County officials have long called for, can be completed without displacing any homes or businesses.

The writers also misunderstand the difference between a solicitation for pre-development work, including continuation of the Environmental Impact Statement, and a contract for final design and construction of the project. The former does not constitute a “construction contract” and therefore is fully consistent with statements by state transportation officials and Comptroller Franchot. Contrary to opponents’ assertion, the comptroller and state transportation officials have not violated any of their commitments on this. It is the final design and construction contract that Comptroller Franchot and the state have committed not to advance until after completion and approval of the relevant environmental studies, not the pre-development agreement.

Opponents also cite vastly overstated cost estimates for utility relocations in their letter. These costs have always been included in the P3 program’s cost estimates, contrary to their frequent misrepresentations. So, it is misleading to portray these as “additional” costs. They also fail to mention that most of these costs are not in Phase 1 of the project.

The guest opinion goes on to make an equally unfounded argument about environmental justice that has no basis in reality. This argument is easily debunked.

First, almost all of Phase 1 can be constructed within the existing right of way so there will be zero relocations of residences or businesses in Phase 1 of the project and, therefore, no property impacts to any low-income or minority communities. Second, the areas adjacent to the proposed widening of these existing road sections in Phase 1 have some of the highest family incomes in the United States. This has nothing to do with environmental justice. This is not some 1950s new highway being routed or re-routed through a poor minority neighborhood.

Raising economic justice concerns in this case is both deceitful and dismissive of the actual economic justice benefits this project will deliver. Think for a moment of the 7,500 new high-paying construction jobs it will provide just for the first section of Phase 1. These are good union-wage jobs that will be filled by a workforce that will include many members of various minority groups, providing training opportunities and family supporting careers for thousands of our neighbors, and hundreds of contracting opportunities for local minority-owned and other local disadvantaged business enterprises.

That is an economic justice benefit that will only happen with the construction of this P3 project.

In addition, the new lanes will offer improved travel opportunities for all, regardless of income. Opponents fail to note that the existing general-purpose lanes will remain free for anyone to use, be less congested than they otherwise would be in the future, and that buses and vehicles with three or more passengers can also access the new HOT lanes for free. So, families of all income levels can avoid paying anything for a faster, more reliable trip. Traffic modeling analysis shows dramatic and lasting travel time savings for users of both the new toll lanes and the existing non-toll lanes. Everyone benefits. That is also economic justice.

There is yet another reason why highway opponents are off-base in this regard.

Severe traffic congestion on the American Legion Bridge and I-270 are holding back Maryland’s ability to attract employment and provide good job opportunities for workers in many other sectors. Who do you think is hurt most by Montgomery County’s lack of job growth? Making our community thrive economically is a great way to advance economic justice. Opponents ignore this reality.

The advocates who submitted the letter continue to deny the proven benefits of adding new managed lane capacity to reduce congestion, and are proposing a totally unrealistic alternative “solution” that involves a “… rail alignment on a rebuilt American Legion Bridge …”

The Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance has a few questions about this idea. Who would pay to rebuild the bridge in their plan? On what right of way would a new rail line be built, and what would it connect to? What is the cost and where are the billions it would take to build and operate a rail system going to come from? We know the P3 project will cut average peak travel times by more than 50% from the American Legion Bridge to I-370. Can a rail system deliver similar congestion relief? Based on previous studies, this idea does not appear to be viable. To even propose rail in this corridor displays a lack of knowledge of basic transportation principles.

Opponents seem to be stuck in an outdated roads versus transit mindset that any transportation professional knows is utter nonsense. Our region clearly needs both.

Maryland planners and officials cannot simply ignore the mode of travel that accounts for almost 85% of all daily trips, including roughly half of all transit trips, that take place on our state’s road network. Both modes are essential to moving people, goods and services, which is why the region’s adopted long-range plan calls for more transit and new managed lanes.

The Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance supports this balanced approach and has been a leading advocate for many important transit projects in the metropolitan area, including the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway and other bus-rapid-transit lines, as well as increased investment in our Metro system. We are supportive of the far more cost-effective transit elements that are already part of the proposed P3 program, which includes high-quality rapid bus routes using the new managed lanes to connect our region with faster, more reliable transit.

But there is no valid basis for rail transit crossing the American Legion Bridge, which we see as a waste of taxpayer money.

Rail solutions require much higher residential and commercial densities than those that can be achieved in Potomac and other parts of this corridor.  On the other hand, the toll lanes will provide free usage and reliable speeds for any bus rapid transit services that may be implemented in the same corridor. The toll lanes will provide a smooth and seamless continuation of the future North Bethesda Transitway at Westlake Terrace, for example. It will also include major upgrades for transit centers up and down the I-270 corridor, from Frederick, to Shady Grove, and to North Bethesda.

This is a more feasible and cost-effective transit solution, that is already in our regional plans, and that can actually be funded and built.

Those who advocate for a rail option on the American Legion Bridge, including any members of the Montgomery County Planning Board, should start by reviewing the adopted and approved 2013 Countywide Transit Corridors Plan  for the county. The plan includes several corridors for implementation of improved transit throughout the county. It does not include any rail transit plan for this area of I-495.

So, if anybody believes that rail is a feasible option, they must start with seeking an amendment to the approved transit corridors plan and updating local master plans in the corridor to increase the current densities. This is unlikely to happen.

The commentary also raises lots of other baseless concerns about public-private partnerships and tolls, but does not address who will be paying for any improvements to these facilities if there is no P3 financing available. The simple answer is, without a P3, there will be no money for these improvements for decades.

The results of a similar project in Virginia on I-495 show managed lanes P3 projects can provide significant traffic relief, for toll lane and non-toll lane users alike, and deliver real value to state taxpayers, while freeing up state funds for other purposes. Three different organizations responded to this pre-solicitation RFP and Maryland selected the one that made the strongest offer.

The selected partner is not only willing to take the risk of designing, building, maintaining and operating the project, but also is offering $300 million to subsidize transit operations in the toll lanes, among other financial incentives to the county and state as part of the first section. If revenues fall short of projections, the investors are taking on the risk, not the state; and there is no “non-compete” clause in Maryland’s RFP documents that would prevent transit improvements in this corridor.

Opponents appear to have little knowledge and understanding of the P3 procurement process, or are simply misstating the facts.

To be clear, without private investors financing these improvements through a P3, there is no funding available for the project from other state or federal sources. The state has neither the funding nor the bonding capacity to cover a project of this scope, and the cost of doing nothing is prohibitive. Maryland taxpayers will save more than $500 million for the reconstruction of the 60-year-old American Legion Bridge as part of this P3 program. That is money that can be invested on other transportation projects in the state.

Finally, as currently envisioned, Phase 1 of the P3, adding new managed lanes from the American Legion Bridge and I-270 up to Frederick, has repeatedly been listed by Montgomery County as one of their highest priorities, and recently received the support of more than 62 diverse organizations in the area. Phase 1 of the P3 program is consistent with both the Montgomery County Joint Priority Letters transmitted to the state since 2007 as well as a 2019 announcement by the current county executive and council calling for new toll lanes on the American Legion Bridge and I-270 but avoiding impacts along the Beltway east of the I-270 spur. This is exactly what the state is now asking the BPW to approve for pre-development. So, opponents’ claim that Phase 1 of the project lacks local support is not correct.

Comptroller Franchot’s stated position supporting Phase 1 of the P3 is the right decision.

We encourage him and all Maryland officials to join us in calling for immediate approval of the pre-development agreement for Phase 1 so Maryland can get about the urgent business of improving travel for our residents, investing in critical road and transit infrastructure, and ensuring that we have a viable plan to finance and construct these improvements to keep our region moving.

Mr. Franchot and the other members of the Board of Public Works should approve the pre-development agreement and to do so without any further delay.

–EDGAR GONZALEZ

The writer is the executive director of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.