While the bill’s backers say they’re not targeting a specific project, the legislation highlights a two-year rift between the Republican governor and heavily Democratic Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where the toll lanes would be built. Public officials in the two counties, who instead favor more investment in mass transit, say the Hogan administration has given little consideration to their concerns, particularly about widening highways near long-established neighborhoods and ending up with tolls that many motorists couldn’t afford.
The bill’s supporters, including Montgomery and Prince George’s officials and transit advocates, said they want to ensure local input on multibillion-dollar highways and bridges built to last for decades. In addition to the toll lanes, they say, the bill would guarantee Anne Arundel and other counties on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge a say in where the state would locate a third span, now being studied.
“So far the state’s top-down kind of planning [on the toll lanes] has disregarded any dialogue — serious dialogue — about some of the financial risks, the risk to our environment, the risk to our communities, to our businesses and to our quality of life,” Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) said.
Del. Mary A. Lehman (D-Prince George’s), lead sponsor of the House version of the bill, said: “We deserve to be at the table. . . . There can’t be collaboration if we don’t have a formal seat at the table.”
No one from the Hogan administration testified at the Senate Finance Committee hearing on the bill Wednesday.
However, in a letter to the committee, Jeff Tosi, director of government affairs for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said allowing counties to veto state projects would make it harder to alleviate traffic congestion.
He said the bill would limit the state’s ability to partner with other states, such as via a recent agreement between Maryland and Virginia to rebuild and expand the American Legion Bridge and add toll lanes. It also could end up pitting one county against another, Tosi wrote, and “prevent regional transportation solutions.”
“The bill has the potential to irreparably damage Maryland’s reputation as a national leader in delivering innovative infrastructure projects,” the letter said.
When asked for a response to the bill, Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci quoted a recent Washington Post editorial that said allowing localities to block state road projects “is an invitation to grandstanding and NIMBYism by parochial-minded officials uninterested in promoting regional solutions.”
Similar legislation died in committee last year. At Wednesday’s hearing, members of the Senate Finance Committee said they agreed with the idea, but were wary of the bill’s language and potential impacts.
The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), said the definition of which counties are “affected” by a toll road or bridge wasn’t clear.
“I could see this bill, if passed, tied up in court,” Kelley said. She later added, “This may not be possible this year.”
The state’s three-member Board of Public Works voted Jan. 8 to allow MDOT to begin soliciting teams of private companies to build up to four toll lanes each on the western part of the Beltway and lower I-270. Under public-private partnerships valued at more than $9 billion, the companies would finance the toll lanes’ construction in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue over 50 years. The companies also would rebuild the existing lanes, which would remain free.