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Proposal would give counties power to veto Maryland’s plan to toll Beltway, I-270

Severe traffic lasts for seven hours each day on Interstate 270 and 10 hours on the Beltway, according to state data. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Maryland lawmakers are tackling legislation that could stall a multibillion-dollar proposal by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to build a network of toll lanes in the Washington suburbs by requiring the state to secure the consent of affected counties first.

The proposal, co-sponsored by Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), would essentially give counties the power to veto state toll projects.

“Before we take the very drastic step of increasing toll roads and requiring people to pay to drive on roads, local governments should have buy-in on the idea,” Lierman said.

A law that applies to nine Eastern Shore counties already prohibits the state from building a toll road, toll highway or toll bridge within those counties without the consent of a majority of those affected.

“All this bill does, it gives the rest of the counties the same rights that the Eastern Shore counties already have,” Lierman said.

Hogan proposes widening Beltway and I-270 to include 4 toll lanes

If approved, the measure could sidetrack Hogan’s $9 billion to $11 billion plan to widen two of the state’s most congested highways and add four toll lanes each to Maryland’s portion of the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) and to Interstate 270 from the Beltway to Frederick. The governor has also proposed to widen the Baltimore-Washington Parkway by four toll lanes — after taking over ownership from the National Park Service.

The Maryland Department of Transportation, in a letter submitted to a House committee, said it opposes the legislation, which it said would leave regional traffic problems in the hands of individual counties to solve, prevent the project from moving forward at all and “sound the death knell for any kind of meaningful congestion relief” on both highways.

“It could impede progress on projects that aim to provide meaningful congestion relief for major metropolitan areas across the state,” the letter said. “The bill has the potential to irreparably damage Maryland’s reputation as a national leader in delivering innovative infrastructure projects.”

Hogan’s plan, the state says, would ease traffic, give drivers more options and follow Virginia in building a robust network of congestion-based-pricing toll roads in the Washington region.

Lierman’s legislation, which has 22 co-sponsors, would be a critical win for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, where many elected leaders, residents, civic organizations, environmentalists and transit advocates have voiced concern over Hogan’s proposal.

“We have very strong and growing public opposition to these projects. We have the exorbitant tolls being collected in Virginia on similar projects that have topped $47 (one way),” said Gary Hodge, vice chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which opposes toll lanes and favors investment in transit. “Extending that to Maryland is something that is alarming to a lot of people.”

Group of corporate heavyweights pushes for regional toll network

Hodge said the legislation offers an opportunity “to restore the process of consultation, collaboration, accountability and transparency between the Maryland Department of Transportation and the counties in Maryland.”

MDOT is principally responsible for building and maintaining highways in the state. Under the proposed legislation, if the state wanted to build toll lanes affecting three counties, for example, at least two of those jurisdictions would have to approve the project.

The Beltway and I-270 toll projects would include the biggest public-private partnership, or P3, in the country, Hogan said when he announced the plans in 2017. He said then that it would cost about $9 billion to widen the two highways and the parkway. A private developer would design, build, finance, operate and maintain the new lanes. Plans for the Parkway are contingent upon Maryland taking ownership of the 29-mile highway from the Park Service.

The proposed program would provide congestion relief in the Washington suburbs at no net cost to the state, MDOT said in its letter, arguing that the legislation, if passed, would impede the state’s ability to negotiate future such projects.

“If enacted, the risk created by House Bill 102 that a P3 toll project could be terminated at any point by a local county veto will hurt Maryland’s ability to deliver future P3 projects by signaling to this flourishing economy that Maryland is politically unstable and closed for business,” said the letter signed by Jeff Tosi, the agency’s director of government affairs.

The proposed expansion of the Beltway and I-270 are undergoing a federal review process exploring a range of improvements before settling on a preferred option. The Maryland State Highway Administration has unveiled 15 construction options and is expected to settle on one later this year. In the meantime, the state is proceeding to select the private-sector partners for the project.

Another piece of legislation also could delay Hogan’s plan by requiring the state to hold off on pre-solicitation of contracting a private partner for the project until the environmental study is completed. That study is not expected to be completed until fall 2020. MDOT has also urged lawmakers to oppose this bill, which is still in committee, saying it would hurt “a project designed to free Marylanders from crippling traffic congestion.”

A third bill would prohibit the state from acquiring land for the purpose of a public-private partnership project that includes the addition of toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270.

Maryland races to catch up with Virginia in toll road projects

Brad German, a Bethesda resident who organized the group Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, said it is “perfectly reasonable” to engage the localities for major projects that have a significant impact on communities.

Residents, he said, are concerned about the physical impact on properties near the highways, and a fair amount of doubt exists that the widening could be done without taking homes and or using taxpayer dollars, as the state has said.

“The way the current process is structured, it has excluded counties and has essentially excluded the citizens,” he said.

MDOT has conducted hearings across the region and with local governments and civic associations.

State officials say the goal is to find the best solution that not only provides relief for commuters in some of the region’s most congested corridors but also is financially viable. Commuters endure speeds below 15 mph during the most congested hours of the day along portions of the Beltway and I-270, state officials said. Severe congestion lasts for seven hours each day on I-270 and 10 hours on the Beltway, according to state data.

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