Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is pushing the Board of Public Works to vote next week on whether the state should pursue public-private partnerships for his plan to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, even though one of the panel’s three members will be out of town.
The projects could require more than $11 billion worth of 50-year contracts.
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) said she told the Board of Public Works in November that she would be in Japan early this month to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary. So she was surprised to learn Friday that the Maryland Department of Transportation had submitted its toll lanes proposal for a vote in her absence next Wednesday.
Only two members of the board — composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — are required to hold a vote and approve an agenda item. However, critics said a vote on such a massive project should not be taken without input from all board members, especially one of the state’s fiscal watchdogs.
Hogan has said the state’s plan to relieve congestion by having companies pay to build additional lanes in return for keeping most of the toll revenue would be the largest public-private partnership in the United States.
Kopp said she asked Hogan’s office to hold off on a vote until she returned for the board’s next meeting, May 22, saying there was a “long-standing tradition” of board members granting each other one-meeting delays when requested. The state Department of Transportation is responsible for submitting and withdrawing its own agenda items, a board official said.
“I have a lot of serious questions,” Kopp said in an interview Wednesday. “I just think for a project this important that’s going to have such an impact for at least a half-century, it deserves more examination.”
Asked whether she believed the governor or MDOT had intentionally planned a vote for when she would be absent, Kopp said, “I wouldn’t want to say. I can only say they knew I wasn’t going to be there.”
Kopp said she had shared some of her reservations about the proposal with MDOT. She said it’s premature for the state to solicit proposals from the private sector before completing a study about the toll lanes’ potential effects on the environment and nearby homes and other properties. She said she also has concerns about the financial details.
“If I were forced to vote up or down,” Kopp said, “I’d probably vote down.”
Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the governor’s office has known since March that Kopp would be out of town for next week’s meeting. However, he said, the timing of the vote during her absence was “absolutely not” intentional.
“We did so knowingly, but intentionally makes it sound nefarious,” Ricci said. “I don’t think anything nefarious is being done here.”
He said Hogan has no plans to seek a delay until Kopp returns.
“It’s an unfortunate coincidence with her trip, and obviously we don’t want her to have to postpone that,” Ricci said. “I think we all have things in our lives that get in the way of our work.”
Asked about the optics of holding a vote on a major transportation proposal without the state treasurer, Ricci said Kopp could appoint someone to vote in her place.
Asked why the governor’s office couldn’t delay the vote for two weeks, Ricci said, “It’s one vote in a long process, but we have to keep moving. Something of this importance to the public’s safety and well-being shouldn’t be delayed.”
Ricci said the vote would allow MDOT to only begin soliciting companies’ proposals. The board would vote later on each of five contracts before any deals are signed, he said. The first contract would probably go before the board in fall 2020, he said, after the federally required environmental impact study is completed.
He said MDOT needs to begin the solicitation process “as soon as we possibly could” to allow the state to “keep our word” with companies that have shown interest in the project. He noted that a leader of Transurban, the company that operates the toll lanes on Virginia’s portion of the Beltway, recently said the company wouldn’t bid on the first phase of Maryland’s Beltway toll plan because it has a “complex political and economic path ahead,” which creates “a lot of risk” for the private sector, according to reports.
“The project was first announced 18 months ago,” Ricci said. “We have had a robust public discussion, and we will continue to.”
A report that MDOT submitted to the board in connection with the vote also shows that the estimated cost of building the lanes has increased. When Hogan announced the toll plan in September 2017, he said adding toll lanes to the entire Beltway, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway would cost a total of $9 billion.
The state now says that adding toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270, excluding the parkway, will cost $8.1 billion to $9.4 billion. However, that estimate includes only 48 miles of the 70-mile proposal: adding toll lanes to the Beltway between the George Washington Parkway in Virginia and Maryland Route 5, including rebuilding the American Legion Bridge, and adding lanes to I-270 between the Beltway and Interstate 370.
Critics of the toll plan said they were disturbed to hear that Kopp, elected by the General Assembly and known as a detail-oriented technocrat, would not get to publicly scrutinize the plan early in the solicitation process.
“It’s shocking,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club. “The idea that they’d vote on it without the state treasurer is extremely concerning.”
Tulkin said he was troubled that the governor would push through a board vote after the state previously had to rebid a $90 million consulting contract on the project after it was reported that one of the initial winners in an expedited bid process included a former employer of state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. Hogan canceled the contract, and it eventually was awarded to a different bidder.
“The governor pledged that speed should never be an excuse for a lack of transparency,” Tulkin said, “but that’s exactly what we’re seeing here.”
Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), chairman of the panel’s transportation committee, said Hogan knows that many elected leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties object to the toll plan.
Voting without Kopp, he said, “is just the latest step that’s going to erode public confidence in this project.”
The board’s approval of a solicitation plan is significant because the state will negotiate the terms of a public-private partnership out of public view. By the time MDOT returns to the board for a vote on a contract, the process will be years along, and companies will have invested millions of dollars in crafting their proposals. Making significant changes at that point is difficult, experts say. Public scrutiny also is challenging on contracts that can be thousands of pages long and full of legalese and complex financing and engineering terms.
“I think it’s going to be pretty hard to ever look at this with scrutiny again once they’re off to the races and they’re talking with private partners about contracts,” said Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Prince George’s County Council member Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3), whose district includes neighborhoods along the Beltway, said she’s concerned residents are just beginning to absorb the detailed maps the state released last month showing the lanes’ potential effects.
The maps, which state officials have called a worst-case scenario, show that up to 34 homes and four businesses could be destroyed, while up to 1,500 property owners could lose parts of backyards or other land. People in up to 4,500 homes, schools and other sites could hear more noise.
Glaros questioned why the state would begin to pursue a public-private partnership when the public comment period on the impacts study remains open.
“It begs the question of whether the community’s questions and concerns matter,” Glaros said. “People are just now waking up to the fact that the [Beltway] sound walls in their backyards could be moved [closer] or homes could be taken. . . . They really need to slow down on this.”
Kopp, who lives near the Beltway in Bethesda, said she’s well aware of the area’s stifling traffic. Even so, she said, she’s concerned that the state hasn’t given more attention to expanding transit and hasn’t explained who would pay to handle storm-water runoff from additional asphalt or toll lane traffic that could swamp congested local roads. She said she’s particularly concerned about the potential effect of widening the Beltway before I-270, which could worsen the daily afternoon choke point where I-270 narrows around Clarksburg.
“I want to go on record as being against traffic congestion,” Kopp said. “I think this is a real opportunity for us to look at how we improve transportation of goods and people in our area for the next half-century. I just think we should take some time to look at it.”