The hours leading up to a high-stakes vote on a controversial highway project in Montgomery County took on the feel of a political campaign Tuesday, as backers and opponents of the plan held press conferences, issued letters, offered last-minute sweeteners and released hastily-conducted public-opinion surveys — all in the hopes of swaying voters.
In this case, however, the voters are local elected officials from counties surrounding the District of Columbia who serve on the region’s Transportation Planning Board, a wonky panel that usually operates in near-obscurity from a nondescript office building downtown.
On Wednesday, representatives of two-dozen jurisdictions will decide the fate of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway and rebuild the American Legion Bridge using private financing and variable — sometimes eye-popping — tolls.
At their last meeting, in June, the panel voted to strip Hogan’s “express lanes” plan from a crucial federal environmental analysis, a potentially devastating blow to his four-year quest to extend Northern Virginia-style toll lanes into Maryland.
The push to delete the project was offered by a top aide to Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), and the outcome appeared to come as a shock to the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Since then, officials in Annapolis and Richmond — and their allies in the business community — have scurried to arrange for a re-vote.
Prospects for Hogan’s traffic improvement plan appeared to brighten considerably on Tuesday when Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater offered an 11th hour commitment to work with Montgomery County leaders on a big-ticket transit project.
In a July 20 letter to the County Council, Slater pledged to “work collaboratively… on a selected transit project that could work in conjunction with the American Legion Bridge I-270 to I-70 Relief Plan, such as the Corridor Cities Transitway or the MD 355 Bus Rapid Transit project, that supports your local land use goals and the Statewide Transit Plan.”
Slater said the agency will use money the state receives from the state’s private-sector developer “to fund design efforts … on the selected project.”
Soon after the Council received the secretary’s letter, five members of the nine-member panel released a statement urging the TPB to reinstate the I-270/I-495 project in the Air Quality Conformity Analysis.
“We appreciate the State’s new commitment to specifically fund design of one of our longstanding transit priorities, either the Corridor Cities Transitway or bus rapid transit on Route 355, at the outset of the project and work collaboratively with the County to develop plans for construction, operation, and final delivery funded through ongoing toll revenue,” the lawmakers wrote.
“It should also be noted that the express toll lanes and their direct connections to several crossing roads afford the opportunity to provide high-speed bus rapid transit service up and down the I-270 Corridor and to Tysons Corner, Dulles Airport, and other destinations in Virginia.”
The letter was signed by Montgomery County Council Members Hans Riemer, Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice, all Democrats.
Council Member Evan Glass (D), who represents the council on the TPB, voted to support removing the project from the air quality analysis in June. He did not sign the letter.
Slater’s successful bid to woo a majority of the council virtually guarantees that the panel will effectively cancel out Elrich’s vote against the project on Wednesday, a key victory — both in substance and symbolism — for the governor.
In recent weeks MDOT and Hogan’s political action committee, Change Maryland, have listed the Corridor Cities Transitway, a long-planned line linking Montgomery’s tech corridor, as a project that would be “killed” if the TPB didn’t reverse its June vote.
At a Sierra Club rally in Rockville on Tuesday, Elrich downplayed the impact of Slater’s pledge.
“Sixty million dollars really isn’t enough to do anything,” he said, quoting a figure that reportedly was referenced during a phone call with Slater.
“But the idea that we get this alternative approach of threatening and insulting people one day, and then saying ‘here’s a carrot if you’re interested,’ that’s not the way to make public policy,” Elrich added.
In an interview, Riemer cast the commitment as a major win for the county.
“Toll revenue will pay for the transit project, which is just how they do it in Virginia,” he said. “I don’t know why, but they have never said that they would do that [before now], and now they’ve said they will do that.”
Members of Congress, lawmakers slam plan
Two members of Congress from the D.C. region — Reps. Anthony G. Brown (D) and Jamie Raskin (D)— urged the TPB on Tuesday to reaffirm its opposition to Hogan’s lane-widening plan, as did 77 members of the General Assembly.
“A reversal of the TPB’s June 16th decision would demonstrate a complete disregard for the views of the localities and the people this project will affect most, and ignores the very serious environmental and economic concerns that have been repeatedly raised by our constituents, experts, and other stakeholders,” Raskin and Brown wrote.
The 77 members of the state legislature who wrote the Planning Board on Tuesday said the project “does not enjoy a regional consensus, is strongly opposed by the local governments that the project would most impact, and fails to move the region forward on environmental justice.”
The letter was signed by more than half of the Democrats in the state Senate, but Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who was appointed to the TPB shortly after the board’s June meeting, said she intends to vote for the project regardless.
“I look at myself as still representing my constituency,” said King, whose district includes many I-270 commuters. “I think each one of us has to look out for their own jurisdiction — and I am looking out for mine.”
Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery), one of 16 Democratic senators who signed the letter, told the Sierra Club rally that she recently found herself inadvertently in express toll lanes on the Beltway in Northern Virginia, at rush hour, en route to a conference.
“I got a charge on my EZ-Pass for $67,” she said. “Tolls by Transurban are exorbitant and unaffordable for virtually any of us.”
Kagan said it’s wrong for the state to plow forward with Hogan’s plan before the required Environmental Impact Statement is complete and before the full impact of telework is known.
“I know of almost no one who plans to get back in their car five days a week, Monday through Friday, during rush hour,” she said.
Franchot Faults Hogan over study funding
Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) signaled on Tuesday his displeasure with a Hogan administration decision to deny a special funding request from state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D).
Under state law, Kopp’s office is required to do an analysis of public-private partnership contracts before they are submitted to the Board of Public Works for final approval.
Claiming her staff was too small to conduct a thorough analysis of a complex project in just 30 days, Kopp requested $100,000 to have outside experts review MDOT’s $54 million “predevelopment” contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners, a consortium led by the Australian firms Transurban and Macquarie Capital.
Her request was denied by the Department of Budget and Management.
A top Franchot aide urged Hogan to provide the funding.
“Comptroller Franchot is aware of the Treasurer’s request and strongly believes that Treasurer Kopp should have the resources she needs to fulfill her statutory obligations to thoroughly review the financial proposals and conditions involved in this unprecedented project, which is one of the largest P3 projects in North America,” said spokeswoman Susan O’Brien in an email.
“The Comptroller hopes that DBM and the Hogan Administration will reconsider its decision denying the Treasurer’s very reasonable request.”
On Monday, a Hogan spokesman said the agency was confident that Kopp could find the money needed for a complete review.
In addition to serving as the state’s chief tax-collector, Franchot is likely to play a pivotal role in Hogan’s project, as he is widely perceived to be the swing vote on the three-person Board of Public Works, on which he serves with the governor and treasurer.
Union-backed survey finds support for project
A survey of residents of residents in the I-270 corridor, funded by the Baltimore-D.C. Metro Building Trades Council, found robust support for the addition of toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge and I-270.
GBAO, a prominent D.C.-based pollster, found that 57% of those surveyed support the project, while 36% oppose it.
Seventy percent of the those polled said that traffic on the roads is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem.
The firm polled 600 residents from July 12-17.
The survey did not include residents of the eastern or southern portions of Montgomery, where opposition to the project has been pronounced. Nor did poll-takers say how much it would cost to use the new lanes.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said the poll contained a major factual error.
“The number of free lanes is not remaining the same,” she noted. “They are taking an HOV-2 lane that is free 21 hours a day and turning it into a HOT lane — that is tolled — 24/7, 365 [days a year]. …I think the devil is in the details.”