Last week, when antipodean toll-road behemoth Transurban announced it was pulling out of former Maryland governor Larry Hogan’s plan to supersize the Beltway and I-270, opponents of the project allowed themselves a little celebration.
Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, celebrated with his wife and their 7-year-old daughter, both of whom have seen the ups and downs of the last four years, even sitting through Board of Public Works hearings to watch him testify.
“They are highly educated on this subject,” Tulkin said.
Tom Hucker, a former Montgomery County Council member, said he felt “a tremendous sense of relief” at the news.
If the victory was sweet, it may be because the battle was so sour. Hogan had pushed the plan hard. Letting Transurban build more highway and take 50 years’ worth of tolls wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime, he said. At first he claimed not a single home would be demolished if four extra lanes were added to I-495 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. And when critics started pushing back, Hogan got snippy.
In May 2019, Hucker organized a town hall in Silver Spring that drew 800 people resistant to Hogan’s promises. While Hucker was onstage, the governor began taking potshots on Twitter.
“These anti-congestion-relief activists show no regard for the hundreds of thousands of you who are stuck in soul-crushing traffic every day,” began one Hogan tweet. In another, Hogan described opponents who were plotting “to keep the roads filled with traffic.”
Said Hucker: “I read his tweets to the crowd, saying they should know that the governor was calling them pro-congestion and conspiring to increase traffic. You would think the governor of the state would have something better to do than troll people on Twitter.”
A political action committee associated with Hogan bought ads on Facebook demonizing opponents, including Hucker and Montgomery Del. Marc Korman (D). Hucker even got that classic attack ad treatment: a photo of him frozen in black and white.
“He made it personal,” Hucker said. “We knew he could be petty and thin-skinned.”
Said Tulkin: “I've been doing political work in Maryland for 20 years and that was by far the most aggressive, vicious and personal approach to politics I’ve seen.”
CABE’s Coufal was similarly troubled by Hogan’s tactics.
“He was nasty not just toward us, but toward any elected officials who poked their head up and said, ‘Can’t we do better than this?’” she told me. “It was deeply offensive. He said we loved soul-crushing traffic and that's just not true. What we want is a workable solution that won't force people to pay high tolls, that won’t wreck our environment.”
A spokesman for Hogan declined a request for comment. One of Hogan’s advisers said critics of the governor’s tone are being disingenuous.
“I think what you’re seeing here is kind of a classic tactic that Gov. Hogan’s opponents have used over time: positioning themselves as victims after they attack him or his proposals,” said Doug Mayer, a former Hogan communications director and head of the toll-lanes-supporting nonprofit Traffic Relief Now.
Mayer said the suggestion that a dialogue was possible if the governor had been nicer “is the biggest load of hogwash I’ve ever seen and I’ve worked in politics 20 years.”
He added: “These folks can whine and complain all they want while also high-fiving each other, but some version of this project is going to go forward. The question now is how much it’s going to be and who’s going to pay for it.”
I asked Korman if he whooped when he heard Transurban was taking its concrete mixers and going home.
“I wouldn't say I whooped,” Korman said. “We need to figure out what the next steps are. For me, it’s not just oppose, oppose, oppose. It’s coming up with a sensible, multimodal approach [to traffic]. Nothing is over. It’s just a new stage of work.”
The losing bidder on the public-private project could move to take over. There’s still a lawsuit pending against the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Friends of Moses Hall and others.
And congestion hasn’t disappeared. Hucker said his side has always wanted a new American Legion Bridge. And they want to give serious thought to such options as reversible lanes, the use of shoulders during peak periods, incentivizing telework, shunting some interstate traffic to the Intercounty Connector and increasing transit.
I wondered how something that seemed like such a fait accompli — Hogan seemed to treat it as one — was finally defeated.
“You know how important momentum is in politics and civic discourse,” Hucker said.
Early on, the momentum seemed with the Republican governor. But Hucker said when he went to town hall meetings organized by MDOT, he detected a groundswell of concern among the public. And he felt the public was being shut out of the process. He thought the momentum could be stopped, then reversed.
“I was expecting that a project that had not encountered any scrutiny would not stand up to it,” Hucker said.
Hucker reasoned that enough concern could be raised to delay a final decision until a Democratic governor was elected.
“That’s exactly what worked,” he said. Gov. Wes Moore (D) has been critical of the project.
Tulkin said the whole episode illustrates an old maxim: “If somebody tells you something is too good to be true, it probably is.”