The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Third attempt to tighten Md.’s public-private partnership law fails in Senate

Traffic moves along Interstate 270 in Rockville last year, but the area backs up severely during rush-hour periods.
Traffic moves along Interstate 270 in Rockville last year, but the area backs up severely during rush-hour periods. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

A third attempt to require more scrutiny of Maryland’s public-private partnerships — the kind of arrangement being pursued to add high-occupancy toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 — failed on Monday in the final hours of the General Assembly session.

The bill was one of two sought by opponents of the multibillion-dollar HOT lanes proposal, in which companies would build the lanes, finance their construction and operate them over 50 years in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue. Supporters, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), say the lanes would relieve severe traffic congestion, while critics say the state should focus more on expanding mass transit.

Both proposals passed the House but stalled in Senate committees.

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One of the bills, sponsored for the third time by Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), would have established an “oversight review board” appointed by the governor and legislature to examine public-private partnerships, known as P3s. It also would have required that a financial adviser chosen by the state treasurer do a “risk analysis” and assess any effect to the state’s credit rating before a large P3 contract could be approved.

Solomon said the bill would not have affected the HOT lanes plan because it pertained to projects that had not yet been designated a P3 by the Board of Public Works.

The HOT lanes plan passed that point in January 2020. The Maryland Department of Transportation recently selected a team of Australian companies to develop the lanes and work toward reaching a 50-year contract, but the initial “predevelopment agreement” is pending the board’s approval.

Solomon had said he hoped his proposal would gain more traction following the near-implosion of a $5.6 billion P3 on the Purple Line, which resulted in the state having to pay $250 million in construction cost overruns. He said he was frustrated that the bill was “left to the last minute” in the Senate, where time ran out before he could assure critics that the additional scrutiny would be on future projects, not the proposed HOT lanes partnership.

Arguments that the bill would have killed the HOT lanes proposal, he said, were “patently false.”

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But Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who represents the up-county area, said it seemed like an attempt to add time and costs to the HOT lanes plan.

“I thought it would just blow up the project,” said King, a member of one of the Senate committees where the proposal died.

King said she’s not certain that adding HOT lanes is the way to fix I-270’s “crippling” congestion. She also said she wants the state to study the potential long-term traffic effects if people continue to work from home more after the coronavirus pandemic eases.

Still, she said, she sees a “huge divide” between down-county residents who live near transit lines and up-county residents who must drive.

“I understand some people think transit is the way to go, and I’m a big transit proponent,” King said. “But for my area, transit is not convenient, and it won’t be for a very long time. We need to do something about congestion on 270. . . . We can’t just force people off roads.”

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MDOT also had objected to the bill, saying it could “irreparably damage” the state’s ability to attract private investment because a review board “increases project cost and uncertainty.”

Two Senate committees also sat on a bill by Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) that would have required MDOT to carry out its commitments made on the HOT lanes project. Those included allowing buses free use of the HOT lanes and building a pedestrian and bicycle path as part of a new American Legion Bridge.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they don’t want to put any scrutiny on this project,” Korman said of the Senate.

MDOT didn’t take a position on the bill but said it “would establish a concerning precedent for interfering” in procuring P3s. The agency said it was “committed to incorporating many of the recommendations from local governments and the public,” such as the separated path on the bridge.

Solomon said he will seek changes to the P3 law, for a fourth time, next year.

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