MDOT Seeks Image Makeover for Controversial Highway-Widening Plan

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

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s “I-495 & I-270 P3 Program” is history.

No, the agency has not pulled the plug on its plan to add variably priced toll lanes to the two highways.

But it is undertaking a major rebranding of the controversial project.

Working in tandem with at least one outside public relations firm, MDOT has rechristened its lane-widening plan as “Op Lanes Maryland.”

“Op” is short for “options” and “opportunities,” the agency explains in a professionally produced video.

“Providing options and opportunities for travelers and local businesses is what Op Lanes Maryland is all about,” the video’s narrator says. “It’s a public-private partnership, which means the state of Maryland works together with private businesses to develop efficient and innovative ideas.”

The one-minute-and-40-second pitch makes no direct reference to the centerpiece of the state’s plan — the addition of four “managed” lanes along portions of the Capital Beltway and I-270.

The word “tolls” is not used either.

But clips of moms picking up children at day care and small business-owners abound.

MDOT has chosen Accelerate Maryland Partners (AMP), a consortium led by the Australian toll-road operator Transurban and Macquarie Capital, to begin design work on the plan. The selection gives the group the right of first refusal on a multi-billion dollar contract to finance and build the lanes, a deal Transurban’s CEO has told investors his firm is eager to have.

Whoever wins that contract would hope to recoup their investment by setting and collecting tolls for the next 50 years.

The video focuses not on the elements of the project that have drawn the wrath of elected leaders and environmental activists in Montgomery County, but instead on the lengthy review process that will occur before construction begins.

“(Op Lanes Maryland) actively studies how any potential solution would relieve traffic, affect the environment, and improve safety before moving forward,” the narrator states.

Project spokesman Terry Owens said the rebranding is an effort to make “the P3 program more customer-focused” by highlighting the potential for shorter commutes, enhanced job opportunities, and new transit, carpool, pedestrian and biking options.

“The new brand is designed to drive home the new options and opportunities being made available by the program,” he said.

But critics of the project see something quite different.

Frederick County Councilmember Kai Hagen (D) called the video a “relentless, one-sided PR campaign, complete with many of the slick and manipulative sales techniques of someone trying to sell you an overpriced timeshare package in Bermuda.”

“They’re trying to change the narrative away from environment, equity and ‘Lexus Lanes,’” he said, invoking a term that variable-toll critics frequently use.

The rebranding was carried out quietly in the last few days, with a couple social media posts but no press release from MDOT.

Late Wednesday, after a reporter began making inquiries about the rebranding, Jeffrey T. Folden, the deputy director of the I-495 & I-270 P3 Program, issued a letter to stakeholders.

“Through Op Lanes Maryland, we will continue working on exciting new transformative transportation options and opportunities to provide a balanced transportation network that meets the multimodal travel needs of our residents and businesses as the National Capital Region continues to grow in the decades ahead,” he wrote.

The web domain was purchased by Pulsar Advertising, a California marketing firm, on Sept. 3.

Asked to provide the price tag for the rebranding, Owens said the “public outreach” cost so far is “approximately $11,000.”

The “Op Lanes” rollout comes at a critical time for the project.

On Sept. 9, MDOT ruled against a consortium, Capital Express Mobility Partners (CEMP), that bid unsuccessfully on the first piece of the multi-billion-dollar project. The consortium argued that the agency failed to follow its own procurement guidelines in awarding the $54 million “pre-development” contract to the Transurban group.

The ruling, obtained by Maryland Matters under a public records request, concluded that the consortium did not file its protest in time.

It took the agency more than two months to issue its ruling.

CEMP, a partnership led by Madrid-based Cintra, immediately filed suit against MDOT in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The court filing, which was expected, was first reported by the Washington Post.

Hagen said he and other opponents of the I-495/I-270 project have been bracing for a “huge sales job” by MDOT, similar to the campaign it launched in July to sway the D.C. region’s Transportation Planning Board. That effort picked up a major boost from Change Maryland, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s PAC, which paid for social media ads that labeled top elected leaders in Montgomery County and other foes “pro-traffic.”

“We saw this coming,” Hagen said. “A high-production full-court press, a major effort, something that was going to keep coming at us. … They’re still worried about [the project].”

Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, another project critic, said the video offers proof that pushback from opponents is having an impact on public opinion.

“I think people are waking up the fact that this is not the best idea,” she said. “I always thought of P3’s as opportunities. But in this case the opportunity is all one-sided.”

Ragina C. Ali, head of government and public affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the new branding “makes a great deal of sense, as it focuses on the customers and the opportunity to serve all road users.”

“Whether motorists choose to use the toll lanes or not, everyone will have a better, less congested commute as a result of the project,” she said.

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify that Accelerate Maryland Partners has not been awarded the construction contract for the Op Lanes project.