ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Board of Public Works (BPW) voted to move forward with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway (MDOT SHA) Administration’s plan to expand Interstates 495 and 270, but with amendments.
The BPW, which consists of Governor Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp, voted two-to-one in support of the measure. Hogan and Franchot voted in support of the plan while Kopp voted against it.
“This transformative project that we are voting on today is about finally taking the first step to move forward and to finally take action on an issue that unfortunately, elected officials have literally ignored for decades,” Hogan said.
The vote BPW was originally supposed to be made was on approving the MDOT SHA’s request of the public-private partnership (P3) model the project would operate under. It was also supposed to vote approving a competitive solicitation method to select a developer for every phase of the project resulting in multiple P3 agreements.
SHA Administrator Greg Slater emphasized that at this point, the organization only requested that the project be allowed to move forward with the next step and “start an innovative dialogue” to achieve a solution. Much-needed environmental impact studies will follow the vote.
Before taking an official vote, Hogan introduced an amendment to the project in the hope of appeasing those opposed to it. The amendment would rearrange the phases in which the project would be completed.
Originally, the first phase of the project was supposed to be the alleviation of the traffic congestion on the Capital Beltway from the Potomac River through Montgomery County to I-95 in Prince George’s County. It would be followed by capacity improvements for I-270 and the improvements to the Beltway in Prince George’s County to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
All phases are still intended to be completed. However, since the first phase received the strongest opposition, Hogan’s amendment allows the I-270 congestion relief Phase One plan to go first, followed by work on I-495 as Phase Two. Phase Three remains as work on the Prince George’s County portion of the Beltway.
“I think it’s a chance for all of us to do what’s been overdue for a long time, which is (to) come up with the best solutions,” said Franchot.
The comptroller added five amendments including no acquisition of private property prior to BPW approval; provisions for mass transit bus access on the managed toll lanes; 10 percent of all state net-total proceeds go to Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties for regional transit services once the developer has been reimbursed and a feasibility study for a monorail from Shady Grove to Frederick County.
Kopp remained skeptical throughout the meeting and said that she appreciates Hogan and Franchot’s proposals. However, Kopp acknowledged the consensus that something must be done about congestion but chose not to approve the agenda item.
“I have been concerned all along about this huge project, and voting on it without being able to see any of the background numbers, of the origin destination numbers, of the numbers that go behind the statements that it’s going to improve the environment,” Kopp said. Konadding that more transparency and discussion would benefit everyone in the long run.
About 17 people came forward to voice their opposition to the project, including Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. He made his displeasure the county not being included in having a say in the decision.
“This is why we wanted more time. We’re not saying no, never. We’re saying no, work with us,” Elrich said.
Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker told the BPW that because of the lack of transparency and community involvement, they must defer action to make adjustments to the plan and protect taxpayers. He recommended completing by doing an environmental impact study and independent analysis before they vote.
“This should be a great opportunity, but at this point, the proposal has flaws that are all fixable,” he said.
Not everyone at the meeting was opposed to the plan. Several Montgomery County residents who experience the traffic on I-270 daily said the project was necessary and called it “game-changing,” because the community is suffering and needs support.
“There are a lot of people who are afraid of what this project could bring… They are afraid it might not bring enough relief or that homes and businesses might be destructed or tolls might be excessive. But I think the fact is, until we move forward with the next step, we don’t know the answers to that,” said Gaithersburg City Councilmember Neil Harris.
According to the governor, Maryland has the second worst traffic in America, and residents are fed up and “sick and tired” of sitting in traffic.
“I totally understand that there are concerns and differences of opinion…After literally decades of inaction and leading continually failing to come up with any real solutions to this crisis, this plan will finally begin to address the number one concern of the citizens.”
With the immense amount of traffic on I-495 and even-heavier traffic on I-270 — and the population expected to increase by 1.2-million people and one million jobs by 2040 — the need for highway expansion “far outweighs the revenues,” Slater said.
A P3 method for completing the project is an “innovative” way to transform the area and reduce congestion at no cost to the state since the chosen developer will design, build and maintain the system.
“Not a single person has come up to me and said ‘You know, we don’t need to do anything.’ They all have ideas…I personally believe that any dramatic or new solution must be comprehensive and multi-modal,” Franchot said.
While the comptroller said he understands the misery that Marylanders face when sitting in traffic and understood that the largest P3 project in North American history, Franchot raised a lot of questions.
Some of these were the financial components, such as who will serve the toll rate and how the process would work. Financial protections from the state and Maryland’s position to pay any debt back to the developer was also discussed.
“Everyone wants traffic to move, everyone wants the environment to be clean, everyone wants people to be able to get to work in a few minutes flat. There are a lot of things that are going to have to change between now and 60 years from now when this project has run its life,” said Kopp.
While the amendments appeased those in favor of the project, there were still residents who were opposed. Brad German, the co-chair of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, was still were not convinced.
“It is not clear what the impact is going to be the way they parsed this,” German said. “It doesn’t change our basic concern of moving forward on such a massive project without hard information on origins, destinations and financial impact and liability to the taxpayer. All of which can be discovered within a reasonable degree to give the public an understanding of their exposure to risk.”