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Government & Politics

News Roundup: Appeal Filed in Toll Lanes Case, Gansler on Call for “State of Emergency,” Franchot on E-ZPass Complaints, and More

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

Accelerate Maryland Partners and the Maryland State Highway Administration have filed notice that they intend to appeal a recent court ruling involving a controversial Montgomery County toll lanes project. The consortium and the agency confirmed late Wednesday that they filed notices with the court on Monday.

In February, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John M. Maloney ordered the Maryland Department of Transportation’s secretary’s office to reconsider the process by which it selected Accelerate Maryland Partners to design variably priced toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

His ruling came in response to a suit filed by Capital Express Mobility Partners, a losing bidder. CEMP challenged the state’s selection of AM Partners for a $54 “pre-development” contract last year. The losing firm alleged that the winning bidder used unrealistically low profit margins for its offer to be financially viable, and it complained that AM Partners failed to replace the construction company that was part of its original team but withdrew in the middle of the procurement.

AM Partners is headed by the Australian firms Transurban and Macquarie. Transurban owns and operates toll lanes throughout Northern Virginia. Its Sydney-based CEO, Scott Charlton, was in Annapolis to meet with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) last week.

The protest that CEMP filed with MDOT was rejected when the agency determined it was filed late. Following a one-day trial, Judge Maloney ruled that CEMP, a consortium led by the Spanish firms Cintra and Ferrovial, filed its protest on-time. The parties are expected to file legal briefs in the coming weeks.

If upheld, the ruling would force the agency to re-evaluate CEMP’s bid, a potentially time-consuming process that could imperil Hogan’s efforts to cement the toll lanes project before he leaves office next January.

“There is widespread support among Montgomery County residents and businesses for this project, and we must move forward without delay,” Transurban spokeswoman Tanya Sheres said in a statement on Wednesday. “The New American Legion Bridge I-270 Traffic Relief Plan will deliver critical congestion relief, new and improved transit service, billions in economic impact and thousands of new jobs at a time when we need it most.”

Gansler rejects call for “State of Emergency” in Baltimore

Gubernatorial hopeful Doug Gansler (D) rejected a rival candidate’s suggestion that Maryland declare a state of emergency to address crime in Baltimore.

“I don’t think we ought to militarize the City of Baltimore,” Gansler said on Wednesday. “I don’t think this is a quick fix.”

Baltimore’s persistently high levels of murder, assault and carjacking are the result of “systemic issues” and can’t be addressed like “a snow storm,” he said.

Gubernatorial candidate Rushern L. Baker III (D) called on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) last week to declare a state of emergency in the city. He said such a move would bring state police personnel and resources from other agencies to help reduce crime and improve residents’ lives.

Baker said that if white teens were dying at the same rate as Black teens, state leaders would be rushing to find solutions.

Speaking to reporters in Annapolis after filing to appear on the June primary ballot, Gansler pointed to his experience as a former federal prosecutor, Montgomery County state’s attorney and state attorney general.

“I understand how to fight crime and we need to make sure that we do so … in a just fashion,” he said. “We need to be more innovative and imaginative.”

Gansler said he has personal affection for Baker, even though he disagrees with him on how best to restore order in Baltimore.

“I love Rushern Baker,” he said. “Rushern Baker’s actually one of the people running for office who’s actually qualified to be governor, given his background.”

Cardin: Americans willing to pay more for fuel to help support Ukrainian resistance

Sen. Ben Cardin (D) said the rising price of fuel is going to cause financial hardship for American families, but he said the nation supports U.S. and Western efforts to punish Russian for the invasion of Ukraine. 

“The sacrifices we make pale in comparison to what the Europeans are doing, because it’s their region that Russia has a much more dominant impact on the economy, and certainly is not even in the same sphere as what the Russians are going through as a result of being isolated,” Cardin said in an interview on Monday. “And of course the greatest sacrifice is being made by the Ukrainians.” 

On Tuesday, President Biden announced a ban on the import of Russian oil. 

“Americans have rallied to support the Ukrainian people and have made it clear we will not be part of subsidizing Putin’s war,” he said. He called the ban “a step that we’re taking to inflict further pain on Putin, but there will be costs as well here in the United States.”

Cardin said multiple factors — supply-chain issues among them — have combined to cause a spike in what consumers pay at the pump. Economists have said that rising energy costs are certain to boost prices on many of the items consumers rely upon, particularly food. 

“Our sacrifices are rather — in proportion — a modest sacrifice, but one in which I think Americans are willing to do,” the senator said. “We want to help them.”  

Franchot, transportation secretary spar over motorists’ E-ZPass complaints

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot urged the state’s top transportation officials on Wednesday to provide more relief to motorists who claim to have received improper toll charges from the Maryland Transportation Authority. 

A member of the contract-approving Board of Public Works and a candidate for governor, Franchot (D) sparred with Transportation Secretary Jim Ports and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R) at Wednesday’s board meeting. 

Franchot said he and state legislators are being inundated with complaints with motorists who claim to have been over-billed or hit with unfair fines and penalties. He urged his colleagues on the three-person panel to defer action on a contract to purchase new E-ZPass transponders as a way of forcing the agency to do more to help consumers. 

In addition to the complaints about mysterious bills, consumers have also said they have had to endure long waits to speak with a customer service agent when they attempt to reach the agency. 

Ports and Will Pines, the Maryland Transportation Authority’s new executive director, told the board that the hiring of new customer service personnel has led to a drop in wait times. They also pointed to the authority’s new fine-forgiveness program. 

Franchot wasn’t buying it. 

“I don’t think this system is fixed,” he said. “The root cause is us, on the government side. …Why doesn’t the state assume responsibility for the mess that it’s created?” 

He appeared to suggest that the state pay disputed tolls on behalf of motorists who claim to have received erroneous bills. When Franchot suggested a “blanket amnesty,” Ports and Rutherford noted that Maryland’s transportation bond agreements are tied to the collection of tolls.

Government officials have said for months that many of the problems the agency is battling stem from the 2020 decision to pull toll booth operators off the job and switch to cashless tolling to avoid the further spread of COVID-19. 

“You were one of the people who said, ‘let’s get rid of these toll booths early.’ I remember that,” Rutherford said pointedly. “The original contracts didn’t call for that. The original contracts didn’t call for a pandemic, okay?”

Ports said the agency’s decision to defer billing was intended to help people who were suffering economic distress due to job loss. “It’s no different than you changing the tax dates due to COVID,” a reference to steps the comptroller took to allow workers and businesses time to file their tax returns. 

Franchot’s bid to defer the transponder contract was defeated when Treasurer Dereck Davis (D) voted with Rutherford to approve it. 

Editor’s Note: This item was updated to include the State Highway Administration’s participation in the appeal of Judge Maloney’s order.