A month-long campaign by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to revive his signature transportation project paid dividends on Wednesday, when a regional panel voted overwhelmingly to restore the controversial proposal to a critical air quality review.
The National Capital Transportation Planning Board voted 28-10 to reinsert Hogan’s Interstate 270/495 plan into a federal air quality analysis that projects need in order to advance.
Under the TPB’s “weighted” voting system, which takes jurisdictions’ differing populations into account, the vote was 10.6 to 4.3 to revive the governor’s express lanes plan.
The vote represented a dramatic reversal.
In June, local officials — acting at the request of Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) — stripped Hogan’s plan from the Air Quality Conformity Analysis.
Wednesday’s vote followed intense lobbying from Hogan, the Maryland and Virginia Departments of Transportation, and business interests around the region. As late as Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Greg Slater was working to woo members of the Montgomery County Council, offering $60 million to plan a new transit project that local officials have long sought.
He also held out the hope that the state might fund construction and operation of the dedicated rapid-bus system many years in the future, using Maryland’s share of toll revenues.
In a statement after the vote, Hogan called the result “a great victory for Marylanders sick and tired of being stuck in soul-crushing traffic.”
“This is a win for families, commuters, and small businesses, and it’s a win against the small group of Montgomery County politicians and far-left activists who sought to derail a compromise requested by Montgomery County and already approved by the bipartisan Board of Public Works,” he added. “Their actions needlessly put the new bridge and every critical transportation project in the region at risk.”
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s vote, Elrich and other opponents of Hogan’s plan were accused of being “pro-traffic” by Change Maryland, one of the governor’s political action committees.
Elrich told reporters after the vote that it is difficult to reach a compromise when “the people you’re working with [are] going on a full-out assault on you and character assassination.”
“I hope you note that we’ve avoided that with the governor,” he added. “All of our discussions on this have been focused on the concerns we have about the financing and the actual building of the project.”
Several jurisdictions that backed Elrich’s push to delete the Hogan plan in June reversed course on Wednesday, including the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils and Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D).
In his statement, Hogan thanked Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for their help.
Arlington County Board of Supervisors member Christian Dorsey (D) said that while he wished Maryland’s traffic relief plan was “more transformative,” he credited MDOT with making “significant improvements” to its earlier proposal.
“I want to reward progress and there has been progress,” Dorsey said.
Under Hogan’s plan, Acclerate Maryland Partners, a consortium led by Transurban and another Australian firm, would finance and build variably-priced toll lanes in exchange for the right to set rates for the next 50 years or more.
Transurban currently operates a sprawling network of toll lanes across Northern Virginia. Connecting Virginia’s express lanes with Maryland’s interstates and relieving a tedious bottleneck at the American Legion Bridge have long been priorities for elected leaders, transportation planners and commuters throughout the region.
VDOT chief deputy commissioner Rob Cary told the transportation planning panel that Virginia commuters have seen “incredible benefits” from the toll lanes. “Those benefits will not be different on the other side of the Potomac,” he said.
It will be “a paradigm-shifting win for multi-modal mobility for the entire region,” Cary added.
He said Virginia has seen dramatic increases in carpooling since Transurban’s lanes opened and that toll lanes carry twice as many people per lane as the general purpose lanes, shortening commuting times for all.
Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), one of the project critics targeted by Hogan’s PAC, said that officials who changed their votes based on “new promises” from MDOT were making “a mistake.”
“There are no new promises,” he said. “If you’re changing your votes because project funding was threatened, that’s a mistake. No project funding was threatened. … If you’re changing your vote because of dark-money ads put on by a politician, that’s probably the biggest mistake of all.”
John B. Townsend II, head of governmental affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, called the vote “amazing” and “overwhelming.”
He labeled Montgomery County a former “economic powerhouse” that is “not only losing ground to Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County in terms of job growth, economic viability, quality of life… it is also no longer tops the list of the best counties in Maryland to live in.”
Stewart Schwartz, head of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, called it “astounding to see our local and state leaders pressing forward with massive highway expansion in the face of the existential threat of climate change.”
“In the past weeks, we have heard more about the melting of ice sheets in the Arctic, Greenland, and Antarctica, massive fires in the Western U.S., deadly flooding in Europe, the U.S. and China, and shellfish cooking on the beaches of Canada amid record heat waves,” Schwartz added.
Although backers of Hogan’s proposal breathed a sigh of relief following Wednesday’s vote, the plan still faces hurdles.
A consortium that lost a “predevelopment” contract award to Accelerate Maryland Partners is preparing to sue MDOT over its procurement methodology.
That contract must be approved by the Board of Public Works, a panel made up of Hogan, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), a top gubernatorial hopeful. Kopp recently complained that the state has yet to determine whether the governor’s financing scheme is the best bet for taxpayers.
MDOT has yet to finish a federally-required environmental review. And it is unclear whether the Biden administration will be willing to sign off on a project that critics contend is weighted too heavily toward cars over transit.