Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said public officials and taxpayers need to know the potential price of the tolls, the overall cost of the project, and how nearby parkland and neighborhoods would be affected by the highway widening.
“There are just a lot of questions about how this is all coming together,” Van Hollen said after the one-hour closed-door meeting. “I’m not opposed to toll lanes, but I don’t think we should authorize an entire project without knowing what impact it will have on consumers and overall congestion.”
He added: “I’m just saying that before the Board of Public Works meets again, I hope they’ll provide answers to all these questions.”
The meeting, part of the delegation’s regular monthly gatherings on various issues, came after Hogan agreed this week to delay a key vote on the toll lane proposal by the Board of Public Works until Dec. 18. State Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) had requested the delay after saying he and the public hadn’t received enough details about some major revisions to the plan that he had agreed to in June.
The three-member Board of Public Works — made up of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer — must approve any changes to the proposal because the state plans to pursue it as a public-private partnership.
Among the changes, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) wants to accelerate the bid process by soliciting proposals for most of the Beltway and all of I-270 simultaneously, rather than starting with the lower portion of I-270. The state also is seeking permission to buy private property along the highways as it becomes available rather than wait until the federally required environmental impact studies are complete.
“The governors of Maryland and Virginia have reached a bipartisan accord to fix the entire Capital Beltway and address some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. It’s the kind of bold solution that has eluded us for decades,” Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a statement. “State officials have gone [above] and beyond to provide information, solicit feedback, and address concerns. We’ve also incorporated transit options, building on our administration’s record $14 billion investment in transit.
“Washington always has the hardest time setting aside politics in order to get things done, but we hope our senators will work with us to advance this bipartisan agreement for the region,” Ricci said.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he also asked state officials to be more forthcoming.
“We really urged as much transparency as possible, to get information out and listen to communities as you go through all this,” Cardin said after the meeting.
Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) pressed state officials for answers to questions that Montgomery and Prince George’s planning officials have sought as they try to evaluate the proposal, a spokesman said. Those include how much toll revenue is projected and what studies have found about which motorists would use the toll lanes.
“I have serious concerns that the Hogan administration is withholding important information and steamrolling through this process with little input from residents and other stakeholders,” Brown said in a written statement.
While members of the congressional delegation can apply public pressure, they don’t have as much leverage as they typically would on a large transportation project because, so far, the state isn’t seeking federal funding for it.
“The federal role is limited,” Van Hollen said.
Under the toll plan, the Beltway and I-270 would each get four new lanes — two in each direction — with tolls that would adjust to keep them free-flowing. The American Legion Bridge also would be replaced and expanded with toll lanes. The regular lanes would remain free.
The state plans to pursue teams of private companies to build the lanes and finance their construction in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue over 50 years. With construction estimated to cost upward of $9 billion to $11 billion, the project would be the largest public-private partnership in the country, state officials have said. No state government funding would be required, Rahn has said.
State officials have said buses would use the toll lanes free and that 10 percent of the state’s net toll revenue would go to public transportation in Montgomery and Prince George’s.
But lawmakers said they want to see more.
Van Hollen said he “expressed great disappointment” that the state recently canceled funding for the Corridor Cities Transitway, a nine-mile busway planned for the I-270 corridor in upper Montgomery.
“That should be on the table” as part of the governor’s traffic relief plan, Van Hollen said.
Cardin said he needed more information before he takes a position on the toll lane plan. He said he agrees the American Legion Bridge needs to be replaced, “but I also recognize [the toll lanes] have to be combined with transit.”
Rahn declined to go into specifics about the discussion other than to say members asked about a variety of state transportation issues in addition to the toll lane proposal.
“It was a great opportunity for us to exchange” information, Rahn said.
Regarding the next Board of Public Works meting, Rahn said, MDOT “will provide whatever information [Franchot] requests of us, and we’ll address his concerns.”