Transit group asks federal judge to compel release of toll lane proposal documents
A coalition opposed to a plan to construct toll lanes along the Capital Beltway wants a federal judge to compel the release of public documents.
The Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, a group of activists who favor public transit options, said the Federal Highway Administration has violated federal sunshine laws. The group said the agency failed to respond in a timely way to requests made a year ago for records related to a proposed toll lane expansion of highways in the DC suburbs. Specifically the group is seeking records related to the “Capital Beltway Accord,” which was announced at a 2019 press event by former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and former Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D). Lauded by Hogan as a “historic, once-in-a-generation” agreement, the document has never been released.
The Freedom of Information Act “and its implementing regulations require (Federal Highway Administration) to issue its determination on Plaintiffs’ request and produce the documents pursuant to the timelines described above,” the lawsuit states. The agency “failed to issue a determination and produce the requested documents pursuant to that timeline or to date.”
The group is asking a federal judge to compel the release of the requested records, cover court and legal fees plus any additional penalties the judge feels is appropriate.
A hearing date has not yet been set and the agency has not filed a response, according to online court records.
The transit coalition filed a request with the Federal Highway Administration in April 2022. The group is seeking studies and procurement records that were part of the state’s submission to the federal agency. The group also wants correspondence between the federal agency and the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Hogan announced a $7.6 billion plan to ease traffic congestion along the Capital Beltway, American Legion Bridge and a portion of I-270 with the construction of toll lanes.
The lanes would be built by a private company through a public-private partnership. Under the terms of the plan, the company would build and manage the lanes for about 50 years, receiving a payment from the collected tolls. At the end of the term, the roads would revert to the state.
The fate of the project is in limbo.
Australia-based Transurban, which was tapped as the lead consortium partner in a plan to build toll lanes, announced in March that it would exit the project.
The announcement came less than two weeks before the company was required to meet a key deadline and submit its design and finance plans for the project.
Gov. Wes Moore (D) has made it clear since last year that he sought a change of direction in the plan. Next steps are not immediately clear.
The Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition filed the request last spring because the state planned to finance large portions of the project with federal loans.
Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, agencies have 20 days to issue a determination on requests. The agency must then produce the requested records.
After the request was filed, the federal agency sought several clarifications. The group narrowed its request and also withdrew a request for some documents. By May 2022, the federal agency officially accepted the group’s filing.
Since then, the request has languished. The agency has not released any records and will only tell the group requests are processed “first in, first out.”
The Federal Highway Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, continues to struggle with a backlog of requests, according to a report available on FOIA.gov.
The most recent report is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s reporting on how each agency has complied with the Freedom of information Act.
The highway administration started the fiscal year with nearly four dozen pending requests. Over the course of the year it received nearly 200 more. Of the combined number of pending and newly received requests, the agency processed 171. That left it further behind headed into fiscal year 2022 than it was the year before, according to the report.