Transportation Projects Dubbed ‘Vital’ by Hogan Go Unfunded in Capital Budget Plan

Heavy traffic moves slowly on I-495 during Thanksgiving travel in November 2019. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

When the DC-area’s Transportation Planning Board voted in June to remove Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s I-270/I-495 widening plan from a list of projects to undergo federal scrutiny — putting one of his top priorities in jeopardy — the state Department of Transportation was quick to push back.

Deputy Secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr. warned the panel in writing that if it did not reverse its vote immediately, a list of projects could be downgraded to studies or eliminated from the state’s construction plans.

The list included 15 projects in Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George’s, jurisdictions that voted to sideline the governor’s signature “public-private partnership” (P3) plan. Other jurisdictions were spared.

According to Lewis, if plans to add express lanes to the two highways died, the state would have to pull funds from the other projects to bring relief to long-suffering Washington-area commuters.

As a re-vote in July neared, Lewis sent a second letter, with just five of the projects — totaling more than $1.2 billion — instead of the original 15.

MDOT wasn’t alone in its counter-offensive.

Change Maryland, the governor’s political action committee, ran Facebook ads that targeted the primary sponsor of TPB’s resolution to remove the widening plan — Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D).

The @LarryHogan ads featured grainy, unflattering photos of Elrich and two other prominent critics of the controversial toll-lanes plan, Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) and County Council President Tom Hucker (D).

The trio were called “far-left and short-sighted politicians” bent on holding commuters “hostage” to “soul-crushing traffic to appease a small group of pro-traffic activists.”

The governor’s PAC also listed “15 traffic solutions that will be killed” — pulled from Lewis’s first letter — if the transportation panel’s action wasn’t reversed.

“[N]early every single transportation solution in the National Capital Region will be killed, including vital traffic solutions,” the ad claimed, with red X’s next to each project.

As it turns out, the projects aren’t so “vital” to the state’s transportation future.

The TPB did reverse itself, voting in July to restore the “express lanes” plan to the federally-required Air Quality Conformity Analysis. Nevertheless most of the five improvements that MDOT and Change Maryland said would have to go unfunded to pay for others ways to deliver traffic relief, were not funded in the six-year Consolidated Transportation Program that the agency released last week.

Korman took to Twitter to highlight the five Montgomery County projects that are zero-funded or only “partially” funded between fiscal years 2022 and 2027.

“This is just the draft [Consolidated Transportation Program] and the final will be submitted in January,” wrote Korman, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Perhaps by then the Governor will remember that he said these projects — which were never funded before either — were ‘at risk’ because of the regional vote and put some transportation $ where his attack ads are.”

Most galling for critics of Hogan’s I-270/I-495 plan is that the Montgomery County Council switched its vote at the TPB’s July meeting after five council members reached an agreement with Transportation Secretary Greg Slater.

In an 11th hour letter, Slater pledged to spend $60 million from the state’s share of its P3 revenue on one of two transit projects selected by county leaders, either the Corridor Cities Transitway or a bus rapid transit system along MD 355.

The CCT is zero-funded and the Route 355 line is nowhere in the CTP.

Critics of the Montgomery Council/Slater deal say the lack of funding is proof that the five members of the Council were duped by the state.

“Governor Hogan said five transportation projects would be cut if jurisdictions didn’t support his plan to add toll roads to the Beltway and 270,” tweeted Councilmember Evan Glass (D) on Friday.

“In his new budget checks notes four of these projects still aren’t funded.”

Frederick County Councilmember Kai Hagen (D), an outspoken critic of the express lanes, said the governor “hasn’t been an honest broker on this issue from the beginning.”

He said that if Hogan was interested in the best deal for taxpayers, he would not have denied the request from Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) for $100,000 to compare MDOT’s “P3” financing approach with more traditional methods.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said Korman is conflating different funding platforms — the Visualize 2045, which is the transportation panel’s long-range plan, and the rolling six-year CTP.

MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said that, in most cases, the projects that were left out of the CTP were not listed as top priorities by counties in their annual letters to the state. She also said that the state’s transportation program is “constrained” by what the Transportation Trust Fund and other revenue streams can support.

Elrich said the CCT, a long-planned bus raid transit line that would connect the Shady Grove Metro station and Clarksburg, remains a top priority for the county because it would tie together major public and private employers in the life sciences sphere.

“The state easily could have given us $60 million and then reimbursed themselves” when they signed their final construction contract with concessionaire Accelerate Maryland Partners, Elrich said.

He said the failure to fund the CCT in the draft transportation program raises fears that the project is a “total hostage” to the I-270/I-495 plan.

“The question is: Are you doing things because you’re trying to advance a bigger goal, economic development, or is this just something you’re doing to get us off your back and to get through an approval process,” Elrich asked.

In a statement, Henson insisted that the state will fulfill every element of its commitment.

“Once we have the development rights fee in hand, MDOT will immediately invest the promised $60 million into Montgomery County’s transit project of choice and this design funding will be added for that project in the CTP,” she wrote.

“MDOT’s agreement with Montgomery County advances the transit project before any toll revenue money is generated, instead of Montgomery County having to wait to receive transit funding until after the HOT lanes are operating,” Henson added.

Montgomery Councilmember Hans Riemer (D), who helped broker the agreement with Slater, said “nobody” expected previously-unfunded projects to be funded because of the Transportation Planning Board’s reversal.

But he said Korman “has a great point” when he spotlights all the zero-funded projects, particularly after the “governor’s team… implied” there was a connection.

“I think we’ve got continuing problems getting the governor to prioritize important transportation projects in the county,” he said. “I do want to see some changes in the CTP to reflect the agreements that we have.”

In addition, said Riemer, a candidate for county executive, Montgomery leaders have yet to choose which transit project they want funded from the express lanes contract.

“There’s no point in having them do final engineering on the CCT if what we decide is we actually want to build BRT on 355.”

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