As Transportation Panel Prepares for Re-Vote, Critics Scoff at MDOT Claims

    Traffic on the American Legion Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

    Under intense pressure from the Hogan administration, an influential regional transportation board is poised to revive a plan to widen portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County.

    Last month the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board deleted the project from a federal air quality analysis in a surprise vote, a potentially crippling setback for one of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s top priorities.

    The amendment was offered by Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), a leading critic of the plan to add “express toll lanes” to the two roads — and the vote appeared to catch the Maryland Department of Transportation flat-footed.

    Since then, Hogan (R) and transportation officials in Maryland and Virginia have mounted an aggressive campaign to engineer a re-vote.

    MDOT has distributed multiple lists of road and transit improvements that the agency maintains will have to be cut if the TPB fails to reverse itself, prompting snorts of derision from project critics.

    In addition, proponents of the $3 billion “public-private partnership,” which also includes the reconstruction and widening of the American Legion Bridge, have moved to fill vacant positions on the panel.

    And Hogan has used his political action committee to publicly accuse project critics of engaging in “partisan” politics and appeasing “pro-traffic activists.”

    The campaign appears to be paying off.

    The TPB meets on Wednesday, and the proposal to restore the Hogan project to the capital region’s Air Quality Conformity Analysis is on the agenda.

    There will be at least three new faces when the panel meets: Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D), who replaces County Council Member Kai Hagen (D), an outspoken project critic who was removed shortly after the June 16 vote; state Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who backs Hogan’s push to widen the two highways; and Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun). King and Reid both fill vacancies.

    The transportation board is made up of more than two dozen jurisdictions from the national capital region and it uses a “weighted” voting system, so even insiders are unclear whether Hogan and his allies in Virginia state government and the business community will prevail.

    In interviews on Monday, several critics of the project were harshly critical of the threats MDOT has issued.

    They said the agency’s list of five projects that would be cut from the budget — to make up for the loss of private financing for the I-495/I-270 plan — are not currently funded in the state’s Consolidated Transportation Plan, Maryland’s six-year rolling budget for capital spending.

    “If you look at Hogan’s budget — and prior budgets — he’s not funding them [already],” said Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery). “There are five projects listed and every one of them, if you look at the CTP, is zero dollars in the current year and zero dollars in the subsequent five years.”

    A Hogan spokesman declined to comment.

    On Monday, the State Highway Administration released data showing that traffic in some parts of the state — including at the American Legion Bridge — is slightly above 2019 levels.

    “Holiday travel during the Fourth of July Weekend exceeding 2019 levels is an important milestone signaling our state’s strong recovery from the pandemic,” Hogan said in a statement.

    “Traffic volumes are exceeding pre-pandemic levels across the state, including at the American Legion Bridge, making the need for our Traffic Relief Plan more urgent than ever.”

    Elrich dismissed the list of projects purported to be on the chopping block, calling it “a pretty empty threat.”

    “It doesn’t solve anything. There’s no money saved here that’s going to be diverted to the bridge,” the executive said.

    “The governor’s whole campaign has been to spew out venom and half-truths — actually not truths at all — and hope that people buy it because it’s coming from him,” he added. “There’s no validity in this.”

    The governor’s political action committee, Change Maryland, ran Facebook ads that accuse Elrich, Korman and Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D) of taking steps that would keep commuters “stuck in soul-crushing traffic.”

    “Montgomery County politicians Marc Elrich, Marc Korman, and Tom Hucker aren’t just blocking a new American Legion Bridge and reduced traffic congestion on I-270 and I-495,” one ad says. “Under Marc Elrich’s plan, nearly every single transportation project in the National Capital Region will be killed, including 5 vital traffic solutions right here in Montgomery County.”

    A version of the ad that ran in Prince George’s claimed that the TPB vote could kill six “traffic solutions” along with the build-out of the Beltway interchange at the Greenbelt Metro station, a project that is not funded in the state’s latest budget.

    “Don’t let Montgomery County politicians hold Prince George’s residents — who are stuck in soul-crushing traffic — hostage to appease a small group of pro-traffic activists,” the text read.

    The Sierra Club has sent a cease-and-desist order to Change Maryland, accusing the PAC of “inappropriate and misleading use of Sierra Club’s name.” The environmental organization also wants Facebook to remove the ads on the grounds that they represent “misinformation” and “false news.”

    Although a top aide to Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) urged a revote in a June 24 letter to the TPB, it could not be learned on Monday how she intends to vote on Wednesday.

    Korman called the letter, from Transportation Director Terry Bellamy, “a little distressing, because it showed maybe a lack of understanding about what the governor is threatening.”

    “I hope that people who are ‘flipping’ are doing it because of the right reasons and not because they’re buying into the false narrative,” he said. “People should be voting based on what they view as the merits of the project and not a completely false narrative that is being put out there.”

    Kopp bid for study funds is denied

    Under Maryland’s public-private partnership (P3) law, the state’s fiscal leaders — the comptroller, treasurer and select members of the General Assembly — have 30 days to review P3 agreements after they are signed.

    In a July 9 letter to General Assembly leaders, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) said her staff did not have the bandwidth to conduct a thorough review of MDOT’s $54 million “pre-development” contract for the I-270/495 project with Accelerate Maryland Partners, a consortium led by the Australian firms Transurban and Macquarie Capital.

    Kopp requested $100,000 from the state Department of Budget and Management to contract with outside experts for the review, but her request was denied.

    The analysis Kopp’s team did conduct concluded that while “there are advantages” to MDOT’s “progressive [P3] delivery model, the approach could make it challenging to keep costs competitive” in later stages of the project.

    “[Future agreements] would include the actual construction and operation of the facilities comprising the Project, which will make their cost, complexity, and risk far greater than anything included” in the pre-development agreement, she wrote.

    “However, information on those costs, complexities, and risks will not be available until [this] Agreement is already approved, the pre-development work is completed,” and subsequent agreements are under consideration, she wrote.

    Kopp also said it’s unclear whether Hogan’s preferred financing method — a P3 — is truly a better deal for taxpayers in the first phases of the project than traditional financing, because the analysis has not been done.

    “Without an analysis directly comparing the costs and risks associated with P3 delivery to a comparable project using public sector delivery, there is no way for the State to make an informed choice between the two alternatives,” she concluded.

    “MDOT and [the concessionaire] intend to perform their own separate value for money analyses as part of the pre-development phase, but only after [this] Agreement would have already been approved,” the treasurer added.

    Michael Ricci, the governor’s spokesman, defended the decision to deny the treasurer’s funding request.

    “It is DBM’s position that the Treasurer’s Office, as guardians of the state’s resources, should be able to find the $100,000 within its $6.7 million budget,” he wrote in an email, noting that the treasurer’s office didn’t spend $500,000 of its budget in the 2020 fiscal year.

    Ben Ross, the head of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and a leading opponent of Hogan’s project, called the Department of Budget and Management decision “utterly outrageous.”

    “They say they want to run the state like a business,” he said. “What business would enter a $6 billion bond-financed deal without their bond lawyer looking at it?”

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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.