Two legislative subcommittees will hold a joint hearing next week to review a Maryland Department of Transportation contract for “predevelopment” work on the Interstate 270/Capital Beltway widening project.
The hearing comes in the wake of the Maryland Transportation Authority’s approval of a $54 million contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners (AMP), a consortium led by the Australian firms Transurban and Macquarie Capital.
The authority’s June 8 vote triggered a 30-day period for the agency’s deal with AMP to be reviewed by the state legislature and two fiscal officers, the comptroller and the treasurer.
MDOT’s selection of the Transurban group for the predevelopment contract puts AMP in position to secure a separate and much larger contract — estimated in the billions of dollars — to finance and construct four “express toll lanes” and rebuild the American Legion Bridge.
The controversial project is a top priority of Maryland’s second-term governor and the business community, but it has generated intense local opposition.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Environment and the Senate Budget & Taxation Subcommittee on Public safety, Transportation and Environment will hold a hearing on June 29. It will take place online and is expected to include representatives from MDOT and AMP.
“Given some of the troubles we’ve seen with some of the [state’s public-private partnership] projects over the years, it just adds to the transparency,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), chairman of the Budget & Taxation Committee.
“It’s an important component of having all the information out there, so the people can see and the legislature can be more in-tune with everything that’s going on.”
The Senate has been more supportive of the Hogan administration’s push to expand the two Montgomery County highways than the House of Delegates. Over the last two sessions, the Senate has refused to act on House-passed bills that were supported by opponents of the project.
“These 30-day review periods were not devised for legislating. They were not made for us to pass a resolution saying ‘don’t go forward,’” said Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House subcommittee that will host next week’s hearing.
“I think they’re designed to speak to the people who do have decision-making authority in this situation, which is the Board of Public Works.”
After the 30-day review period, MDOT is expected to submit its predevelopment contract — covering engineering and design work — to the works panel, which is made up of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D).
Franchot, a candidate for governor in 2022, is expected to be the swing vote. To the extent that lawmakers and citizens make comments for or against the project, it will primarily be with an eye toward swaying him, observers believe.
“Our role is an oversight role really at this point,” said Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery), who chairs the House Transportation & Environment Committee.
“It’s the Board of Public Works that needs to really examine the contract, examine the finances, and put it under a fine-tooth comb, because when this contract is written, it’s going to be [for] fifty-plus years,” he added. “We’ll all be dead at the end of this contract.”
Korman, who will co-chair the hearing with Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), said the committee will also hear from at least one independent expert on “P3” deals. The public will be allowed to testify.
“Is there going to a lot of give-and-take at this point? I doubt it,” Korman said. “I think we’re at a yes-or-no stage with the Board of Public Works.”
Ousted procurement chief hired by losing bidder
Dana L. Dembrow, the former chief of procurement at the Maryland Department of Health, has been tapped by a consortium whose bid on the I-495/I-270 project was rejected, Maryland Matters has learned.
Dembrow served as an administrative judge on the Maryland Board of Contract Appeals for nearly a decade before joining the health department in 2016.
Although he helped guide the the agency for much of the pandemic, earning praise from then-Health Secretary Robert Neall and others, Dembrow was terminated without explanation, he said in a December interview.
The former state delegate said he suspects he was fired for refusing to process a multi-million purchase of COVID-19 test kits from a South Korean firm because it lacked proper documentation.
Government officials have rejected Dembrow’s characterizations.
Dembrow declined to confirm that he is now working for Capital Express Mobility Partners (CEMP), the losing bidder on the highway project. A Hogan spokesperson also declined to comment.
CEMP has hired former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), also a candidate for governor, to shepherd its protest. Gansler refused to speak to a reporter seeking comment about the decision to hire Dembrow.
Dembrow has crafted CEMP’s legal briefs and is prepared to serve as an expert witness if the consortium’s case winds up in court, according to a source with ties to the business community.
Sean Malone, a veteran Maryland attorney whose firm handles procurement and contract matters (among others), said Dembrow brings a wealth of knowledge to CEMP’s protest action.
“He’s got a real legal background,” said Malone. “Dana fully understands the way procurement should work and the Maryland case law that defines what a proper process looks like.”
CEMP’s first move was to file a protest with the MDOT contracting officer who selected AMP from among three bidders. The protest was denied.
Now the firm is awaiting its opportunity to pursue an appeal, which will be heard by deputy secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr.
If the appeal is denied, the consortium can sue the state in circuit court. (Under Maryland law, the Board of Contract Appeals has no role in P3 disputes.)
For political and legal insiders, Dembrow’s role in a high-profile battle involving a top Hogan priority will add to the intrigue of a trial, if one occurs.
“What adds to the interest in this is that Mr. Dembrow was an administration employee and is now going against the administration, challenging a decision,” Malone said. “That is difficult, but he clearly has the experience to opine on the issue.”