Eight months after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) killed a toll-road consulting contract that triggered concerns about potential conflicts of interest, Hogan and another top official voted to award the $90 million in work to a different team.
The decision Wednesday by the state Board of Public Works clears the way for a surge of new activity on Hogan’s multibillion-dollar plan to build toll lanes on Interstates 270 and 495.
The outside consultants will serve as something of an extension of the Maryland government, helping to hire and oversee other private firms that would actually design and build the toll lanes.
The project would be funded by imposing tolls that would shift according to driving conditions — creeping higher as congestion worsened, for example.
Critics have knocked the toll project as flawed, saying that officials should do more to increase mass-transit options and warning of the potential financial burden on the state and toll payers.
But Hogan — noting his reliance on public opinion polls in his recent reelection campaign — said voters want immediate action on unclogging vital highways, in addition to what his administration has done to support transit projects.
“I’m a balanced transportation guy. But all those things are not going to stop the people from sitting in traffic on 270 and 495 if we don’t fix the damn roads,” Hogan said.
The state initially chose three prime contractors for the project, including Kansas City-based HNTB Corp. and Parsons, after a truncated process that relied on 10-page proposals, 90-minute presentations and 30 minutes of questions.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who previously worked for HNTB, had signed a waiver of the state’s traditional procurement practices. A former top colleague of Rahn from their time at the Missouri Department of Transportation is now a top executive at Parsons.
Although Rahn said the companies were selected based on their qualifications, the two Democrats who sit with Hogan on the Board of Public Works — state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and state Comptroller Peter Franchot — questioned the abbreviated procurement process. Kopp said Rahn’s role gave “the appearance of a potential conflict of interest.”
Hogan dropped the contract and called for a do-over.
“I am not satisfied that our threshold for transparency has been met in this case,” Hogan wrote in an April letter to Rahn, who recused himself from “any and all matters” involving HNTB.
That meant, according to Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson, that Rahn had no role in the redo of the contract award.
The winner in the second go-round is a joint venture called Maryland Traffic Relief Partners, which includes RS&H, an engineering firm; the infrastructure and professional services firm WSP; and the Baltimore-based engineering and construction management firm Whitman, Requardt and Associates.
Hogan and Franchot voted yes on the contract Wednesday, while Kopp abstained, saying it is unclear precisely how the money will be spent, what the next steps will be and how the project will affect a recent state pledge to address greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks and other forms of transportation.
State transportation officials had initially argued that traditional procurement methods were too slow and cumbersome.
But Henson said Wednesday that the second procurement process allowed teams to get “debriefed on their weaknesses and the time to re-form with other teams to make up the gaps, ultimately creating stronger teams to deliver the project.”
The first procurement took 56 days, this one 147, state officials said.
In a statement, HNTB said that “while we’re disappointed in the committee’s decision, we remain excited about and committed to the opportunities we see in Maryland.”