In Split Vote, Board of Public Works Approves Highway Design Contract

From left: Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) chat before the start of a lengthy Board of Public Works meeting that included consideration of a predevelopment contract for a controversial public-private plan to replace the American Legion Bridge and add toll lanes to portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

In a vote that divided the state’s top leaders, the Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday advanced Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to widen two highways in Montgomery County.

Hogan (R) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) voted to accept one contract that will allow an international consortium to begin design work on the plan to add privately financed toll lanes to portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

A second contract sets up a one-dollar-a-year lease arrangement, over 60 years, between the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA).

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) voted against both contracts. In June, her office sought $100,000 to conduct an in-depth financial review of the complex project, but the Hogan administration denied her request.

The $54 million “predevelopment” contract approved on Wednesday allows Accelerate Maryland Partners (AMP), a conglomerate headed by the toll-road operator Transurban, to plan and design Phase 1 of the project — from the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge, along I-495 and up I-270 to Interstate 70 in Frederick.

While a much larger construction contract isn’t expected to go before the board until next year, the 2-1 vote represented a victory for Hogan and project supporters.

The deciding vote was provided by Franchot, an announced candidate for governor, who said the state’s plan “may be a pragmatic solution.” His support for the contracts was not unexpected.

He said he was confident that the Maryland Department of Transportation would keep its commitments to boost transit in the project corridor, hold off acquiring property until a final contract is in hand, and that there “won’t be shovels in the ground” until all required environmental and financial analyses have been finished.

“Kicking the can down a highly-congested road is no longer an option,” he said. “Maintaining the status quo obviously keeps giving Northern Virginia a leg up as far as economic advantage. …We need to pay attention to the economy on our side of the river.”

(Franchot also said he frequently jokes with Hogan that “someday I hope I can maybe name part of the [new] bridge after him.”)

The comptroller insisted that an Aug. 10 letter, co-signed by Transportation Secretary Greg Slater and Tim Steinhilber, a top AMP official, be included in the board’s records.

The letter states that “a project of [this] magnitude” … requires participation from union, non-union, disadvantaged, minority, small, and veteran-owned businesses, and contractors of all makes and sizes working in harmony.”

Franchot, who won the backing of a large construction union, LIUNA, earlier this year and who previously insisted that the project be built by “union workers earning union wages,” said the letter “puts to rest the concern and ambiguity — there is no ambiguity. This is something that is a very high priority for myself.”

The letter includes a “notice of requirement for project labor agreement (PLA)” that states in part: “All contractors and subcontractors are permitted to compete for contracts and subcontracts without regard to whether they are otherwise parties to collective bargaining agreements.”

At least three times, Kopp asked Slater to clarify how the proposed PLA would function, describing herself as confused by the letter’s apparent contradictions. After the meeting she said she remained uncertain how such an agreement would work.

She referred to Franchot’s handoff of the Slater-Steinhilber letter to board staff as a “good photo opportunity.”

Kopp said her inability to conduct a more robust analysis of the privately financed project meant there are “questions that are left unanswered” regarding “the ultimate cost” of the state’s plan.

“I’ve asked for the numbers,” she added. “We have yet to see them.”

Kopp also said the recent U.N. report on climate change makes clear the world is teetering between “crisis and catastrophe.”

Not discussed during the meeting was a protest filed by a losing bidder, Capital Express Mobility Partners, challenging MDOT’s award of the predevelopment contract to AMP. MDOT has yet to rule on the protest.

Prior to the vote, Hogan called his plan to widen the two frequently congested highways and rebuild the aging bridge “historic and transformative.”

He said it would provide “real traffic relief on the Capital Beltway, more transit services for the region, thousands of jobs, longtime economic growth and environmental benefits.”

The vote followed two hours of public testimony from nearly 40 people. Dueling rallies near the State House were held before the board convened.

Many of the people who testified before the panel represented construction and highway-materials firms. They highlighted the impact of the Washington region’s congested roads — which are consistently ranked among the worst in the nation — on their business operations, commuters and families.

Project supporters said Transurban’s toll lanes in Northern Virginia have shortened commute times for all motorists — those who opt to use them and those who don’t.

Opponents who spoke urged Hogan to fund Kopp’s request to conduct a more detailed financial analysis of the deal.

They complained that a financial analysis promised by MDOT two years ago — comparing the use of “public-private partnership” financing with traditional financing — has yet to be made public.

Other critics said the “managed” lanes would primarily benefit upper-income travelers and that the first phase of the project would create new bottlenecks where express lane drivers merge back into general-purpose lanes.

Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) said he was “disappointed” that Franchot didn’t use his leverage to delay Wednesday’s vote.

“They’ve got enough concerns about this that they would have done no harm to let Kopp do her work,” he said. “Unless you don’t want to see the results of that analysis.”

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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.