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Critics Accuse Moore of “Flip-Flop” on I-270 Toll Lanes Plan

Author and former nonprofit CEO Wes Moore campaigns for governor at the 2021 J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

When gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore (D) was asked last fall about Maryland’s plans to build privately financed toll lanes along Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway, he made it clear he was not a fan.

“The idea of having a luxury toll lane the overwhelming majority of Marylanders will not be able to benefit from — I’m not OK with that,” Moore told Maryland Matters.

He has apparently had a change of heart.

Asked about the project again, earlier this month, Moore told the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition he would be willing to dedicate federal funds to the project.

In a candidate survey conducted by the coalition, Moore called traffic congestion a serious “quality of life issue” that hampers the state’s economic growth. To address it, he said he would be willing to “dedicate part of the $4.1 billion in federal highway aid and the $409 million in bridge repair allocated for Maryland to funds to this project.”

Moore also expressed support for increased transit and he faulted the Hogan administration for not collaborating more with Montgomery officials and residents of the I-270 corridor. He also said he was open to reversible and high occupancy toll lanes, and to “hold any [public-private partnership] accountable to taxpayers.”

Critics seized on Moore’s apparent embrace of elements of Hogan’s controversial plan.

In a statement, candidate John King said: “Moore’s responses and his willingness to flip flop so drastically on issues that will impact the lives of millions of Marylanders who use our public transportation and drive on our roads should raise a giant red flag for voters.”

Ben Ross, head of the transit coalition, said “we’re disappointed with the change in his position — especially disappointed that he wants to subsidize [new lanes with] stimulus money.” And rival Tom Perez (D) said in a statement: “I’ve consistently said we can’t simply pave our way out of gridlock. Maryland needs a balanced approach that leverages investments in mass transit, and every option to get people out of their cars — rather than the Hogan-[Comptroller Peter] Franchot (D) plan to widen the beltway and push privatized toll lanes.”

In a statement late Monday, the Moore campaign did not explicitly address suggestions that his views on the project have morphed over time. 

“[T]he Board of Public Works vote on 270 included no public input or environmental assessment,” a statement from the campaign read. “The Moore-Miller Administration will be committed to equitable transit opportunities with community collaboration. We are open to HOT lanes if there is strong public consensus, and will leverage federal funding mechanisms to improve traffic in the region.”

The Maryland Department of Transportation received thousands of comments from the public and issued a draft environmental impact statement in partnership with federal highway officials.

In his responses to the coalition, Franchot said, “I am confident that there is a way for this project to be done right.”

“I’ve made the conditions for my support of this project clear from the beginning,” he added. “[I]t will put transit at the center of the traffic relief strategy, it will promote transit and carpooling by making them free in the toll lanes, and it will have a [project labor agreement] so good jobs are created for Marylanders.” He also said the state and its chosen concessionaire “must demonstrate that the project is financially sound.”

Candidate Rushern L. Baker III (D) said he opposed the toll lanes plan, pledging to “reduce traffic by giving Marylanders better, cheaper alternatives to getting on the highway.”

King said he was “strongly” opposed to highway widening and privately funded toll lanes, “as there is not enough evidence it will actually reduce traffic and is irresponsible in the face of climate change.”

Candidate Doug Gansler took no position on the project. An attorney, he is representing a firm whose bid for the toll lanes contract was rejected. That firm is suing the state over the procurement. Gansler said if the Hogan project moves forward, it “needs to be done in an environmentally friendly manner and through proper procurement protocols.”

“I support shifting money away from major highway projects towards mass transit projects,” he added.

Candidate Laura Neuman expressed concerns about “the prohibitive toll cost,” which she said would worsen “the socio-economic divide in our communities.” Candidate Jon Baron said he supports the first phase of Hogan’s plan, which would rebuild the American Legion Bridge, widen the Beltway to I-270, and widen the southern portions of 270. “Any further expansion would require a rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of the initial phase of expansion once that phase is completed,” he said.

Candidate and toll lanes opponent Ashwani Jain faulted the state for “(approving) the contract with a selected developer prior to completing an environmental impact report — that’s against promises made to us.” Candidate Jerome Segal said he opposes the toll lanes plan.

Republican candidates for governor were queried by the transit coalition but none responded, according to Ross.

Most Democrats Back Red Line Revival

Candidates were also asked to share their views on the proposed Southern Maryland transitway, the expansion of existing MARC service to include all-day trains, and the long-sought revival of the Red Line in Baltimore, a light rail transit project between Woodlawn and Bayview that Hogan nixed in 2015.

Most candidates expressed strong support for the Red Line.

Baker said he and running mate Nancy Navarro would “renew the Red Line expansion in our first 100 days in office.” Franchot and King said the project would a top priority if they win in November.

Gansler, Jain, Neuman, Perez and Segal all expressed support.

Moore did not explicitly embrace rail in the survey. Although he criticized Hogan for killing the project and returning $900 million in federal funds, he said he would “expedite essential construction, including an intermodal Red Line, that is built quickly, cost-effectively, and with community input on stops, disruptions, and impact on local businesses.”

Ross, head of the transit coalition, called that prescription vague. “That could be anything,” he said. After this article went online on Tuesday, a Moore spokesperson insisted the candidate “fully” supports the Red Line.

After this story published on Tuesday, Moore’s campaign provided an additional statement: “We 100% support the Red Line. The Moore-Miller administration will expedite this critical economic infrastructure engine for the Baltimore region. We will make it a top priority and ensure that it is fully interconnected to other modes of transportation.”

Baron pledged to “move forward with the most effective option” for improving east-west mobility in the Baltimore region.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated Tuesday to include an additional comment from Wes Moore’s campaign.