Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Thursday proposed a $9 billion plan to widen three of the state's most congested highways — the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — in what he said would include the largest public-private partnership for highways in North America.
The projects would add four toll lanes each to Maryland's portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) and to I-270 from the Beltway to Frederick. It would also widen the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD 295) by four toll lanes after taking over ownership from the federal government.
Because of private-sector involvement, Hogan said, the plan would not cost taxpayers any money. Instead, he said, because of private companies' up-front investments in the Beltway and I-270 ventures, the state could potentially reap billions of dollars of additional funds.
Only the new lanes would have tolls; the others would remain free, he said.
The plan represents Hogan's biggest proposal in two and a half years in office to unclog traffic for Maryland residents, who he said suffer the second-longest commuting times in the nation. He said the venture is patterned in part on work done in recent years across the Potomac in Northern Virginia, where public-private partnerships have added High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the Beltway and Interstate 95, with plans to add more on Interstate 66.
"These three massive, unprecedented projects to widen I-495, I-270 and MD 295 will be absolutely transformative, and they will help Maryland citizens go about their daily lives in a more efficient and safer manner," Hogan said Thursday in announcing the plan.
The proposal immediately drew criticism from some Democrats and from environmentalists and smart-growth advocates, who would prefer to invest more in public transit. They said bigger roads would ultimately lead to suburban sprawl and an increased number of drivers, in turn worsening congestion.
"We do not see any point in new highways or expanding existing highways," said David Sears, chairman of Montgomery County's Sierra Club group. "It makes a nice difference for a short period of time, but that's probably measured in months — not years. And people adjust their behavior and then the roads are just as clogged as they used to be."
Critics also warned that the tolls would be high and that homes would be razed to make room for wider highways.
"This will cost drivers of our state enormous amounts of money," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Hogan next year.
Based on Virginia's experience, he said, rush-hour tolls for commuters would be as high as $20 to $40.
"I don't know how you fit four more lanes from Silver Spring to Bethesda without an enormous dislocation of homes and parks," he added.
The proposal elicited a cautiously positive response from one Democrat, U.S. Rep. John Delaney (Md.), who said he was pleased to see the state making congestion relief a top priority.
"The horrendous traffic on I-270 has been a quality of life and productivity tax on individuals and businesses in my district," Delaney said.
In one potential obstacle, the federal government did not confirm Hogan's announcement that the Interior Department was ready to hand over the B-W Parkway.
Hogan, who recently met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, said the agency was eager to do so.
"It was actually the Department of Interior's decision to get rid of the road, [and] we're happy to take it from them," Hogan said. Interior "doesn't love [the road] because they're in the park business and not the road business, and their intention is to dispose of all roads that they have under their control," he said.
Asked about the governor's comments, Interior issued a brief statement saying that Zinke and Hogan had "a wide ranging conversation about a number of issues of mutual interest."
But it continued: "No decisions related to issues involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were made during that meeting."
Interior did not immediately respond to questions about whether it is looking to cede control of the parkway or to get out of the road business altogether, as Hogan said.
Hogan outlined what he labeled a "Traffic Relief Plan" at a news conference in Gaithersburg on a hill overlooking I-270. The announcement came within weeks of two other major transportation developments for the state's Washington suburbs.
The state recently secured a $900 million full-funding grant agreement on another public-private partnership: the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line connecting Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
And Hogan surprised the region Sept. 11 by reversing course on funding for Metro, offering to contribute an additional $500 million over four years to the transit system if Virginia, the District and the federal government do the same.
It was not clear how many years it would take before construction of the new lanes might begin. Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said the initial phase of soliciting ideas from private companies and reviewing their qualifications — to prepare a request for proposals — typically takes up to a year and a half.
In public-private partnerships, or P3s, the government teams up with the private sector with the proclaimed goal of reducing the burden on taxpayers and taking advantage of private-sector efficiencies.
On the Beltway and I-270, the private developer would design, build, finance, operate and maintain the new lanes. For the B-W Parkway, the Maryland Transportation Authority would do so.
The plan foresees that the revenue spun off from the Beltway and I-270 would help cover the cost of upgrading and widening the B-W Parkway. Hogan was firm in saying that the roads would effectively pay for themselves.
"Not only do P3s dramatically decrease the cost to taxpayers, they also have the potential to generate billions of dollars in much-needed revenue for the state," Hogan said. "It won't cost us tax dollars."
Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said she was "a little skeptical" about the governor's estimates.
"I think it's probably going to be more costly than thought," she said. "And people should remember: These would only be new lanes for people who pay."
Madaleno, vice chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, noted that his committee and the corresponding one in the House of Delegates would be required to comment on the projects. He said a negative opinion from the legislature might scare away potential private investors.
But both Hogan's office and Warren Deschenaux, executive director of legislative service for the General Assembly, said the executive branch has the power to act on its own — as long as no additional money needs to be appropriated.
"We don't need any legislation," Hogan said. "We'll have to go through difficult federal environmental approvals, as you would for any other road."
This story has been updated.