Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is scheduled to seek approval Wednesday to solicit companies to build and operate toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 as part of his plan to alleviate congestion on two of the state’s busiest roadways.
What makes Hogan’s request to the Board of Public Works unusual is that he is pursuing it over the vocal objections of many elected leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the jurisdictions the toll lanes are intended to directly benefit.
Most controversial transportation projects in the Maryland suburbs — including the Intercounty Connector and the light-rail Purple Line — stalled until the political stars aligned with enough support at the state and local levels.
But Hogan’s pursuit of a major transportation project over local objections, political observers say, reflects the governor’s penchant for pushing issues he thinks — and polls show — have broad public support. His choice to structure the toll lanes as a public-private partnership also allowed the governor to bypass the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, and Democratic strongholds in the D.C. suburbs.
Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College, said the controversy surrounding the toll lane plan illustrates a long-standing philosophical divide between Hogan and the state’s dominant Democrats. Hogan sees expanding roads as a way to spur economic growth, she said, while Democrats typically favor mass transit.
“I’m sure the governor knew well ahead of time exactly how it polled” in Montgomery and Prince George’s, Kromer said of the proposal. “This is someone who always cares about what the public thinks. I think it’s why he feels comfortable pushing back on Democratic leaders in those areas.”
Hogan’s office declined to make anyone available for an interview for this story.
In written responses to emailed questions, state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said surveys show that residents consider addressing traffic congestion on Interstate 495 and I-270 a top priority. Montgomery officials had also asked for toll lanes on I-270 and across the American Legion Bridge dating back to 2007, Rahn said.
A 2017 report by the Federal Highway Administration, he said, showed that congestion pricing — increasing tolls as traffic builds to keep lanes moving — is the “single most viable and sustainable” way to reduce traffic.
“We know there is a very active and vocal minority opposed to reducing the region’s traffic congestion,” Rahn said. “However, we know from polling that a majority of citizens want this traffic addressed. Can anyone really claim that congestion isn’t a problem?”
Rahn said the state doesn’t have the money to alleviate traffic, including for emergency vehicles. He has said the new lanes will cost the state nothing because the companies will pay to build them in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue.
“We can’t allow a minority to impose deplorable conditions on the majority,” Rahn said.
A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found 61 percent of Washington-area residents — and 61 percent of Montgomery residents — favor adding toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270. Support drops to 48 percent in Prince George’s.
While heralded among toll lane supporters, the same poll also provided fuel for opponents. Seven out of 10 Washington-area residents are concerned about tolls being too expensive, the lanes failing to reduce traffic, and nearby homes being destroyed by wider highways.
“Of course it appears to have public support because people have been promised congestion management with no environmental impacts and at no cost to the public,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club. “I’m surprised 100 percent aren’t for it. People are being sold a bill of goods with no data. . . . It’s a fantastical proposal that can’t possibly play out as they’re selling it.”
Maryland’s law on public-private partnerships was designed to assure the private sector of minimal political meddling by allowing the General Assembly to comment, but not vote, on such arrangements. Instead, two out of the three members of the Board of Public Works — composed of the governor, treasurer and comptroller — must designate a project as a public-private partnership and approve any contracts.
That means Hogan needs one other vote.
State treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), the legislature’s appointed fiscal watchdog, said Thursday that she still has “serious unresolved questions” about the toll plan but declined to say how she plans to vote.
The state Department of Transportation initially sought to hold the vote in May, when Kopp had said she would be out of the country, but later agreed to postpone it until this week.
Kopp’s skepticism has left Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who lives in liberal Takoma Park and is thought to be eyeing a run for governor, the subject of intense lobbying by both sides. A Franchot spokeswoman said the office does not comment before votes.
Political observers say it would be unusual for MDOT to seek the board’s approval unless state officials thought they had a second vote. However, the agency could pull the proposal from the panel’s agenda at any time, even during the meeting, if it appears it lacks support.
Even if the Board of Public Works allows the Hogan administration to begin soliciting proposals, the political fight could hurt the project’s chances of getting off the ground.
Both the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils, as well as Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), oppose the plan, saying they want more transit options and more analysis of the lanes’ potential environmental and financial effects before the state solicits proposals. A spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said she wants more information about the project’s potential impact on the environment and adjacent communities before making a decision.
Montgomery officials also have threatened to withhold park land that would be needed to widen the Beltway, a dispute that could result in a lengthy court battle over the reach of the state’s powers of eminent domain.
Prince George’s Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5), a former state delegate, said she sees partisan politics at work — and her constituents who oppose the toll lanes being ignored.
“I can’t see any other reason [Hogan] wouldn’t listen to us,” Ivey said. “The county councils are against it. The delegates in Annapolis are against it. I just don’t understand how he can continue to go forward without giving us consideration.”
Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the state has had a “thoroughly transparent” process, including numerous public workshops, community meetings and legislative briefings.
He said the governor’s office “notes with disappointment” that state highway officials weren’t invited to town halls on the proposal hosted by Montgomery Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5) and Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.).
“If local leaders are truly committed to a collaborative process,” Ricci said in an email, “why shut out a two-way dialogue?”
The political discord could discourage some companies from bidding on the project, which would limit competition and the innovative ideas that Rahn has said MDOT hopes the private sector will provide to limit impact on nearby homes, businesses and park land.
Companies that have weighed in on the toll plan said public and political support is a “key risk factor” and “an overwhelming concern” because a lack of it can lead to projects stalling or getting canceled, according to a state report.
One potential bidder, Transurban, the company that operates the toll lanes on Virginia’s portion of the Beltway, recently said it would not bid on the first phase of the Maryland project. A company leader cited a “complex political and economic path ahead,” according to reports.
John Townsend, of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he’s concerned that “political distrust” between Hogan and local Democrats could result in Maryland losing out on toll lanes that studies show have saved time for motorists in Northern Virginia.
“The private sector could say, ‘I don’t want to be involved in this,’ ” Townsend said.
Montgomery Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said politics factored into MDOT’s decision to use a public-private partnership, also known as a P3. By not seeking any public funding for construction, Riemer said, Hogan avoided having to consult the Democratic legislature, where Montgomery and Prince George’s have large delegations.
“They could just go full steam ahead,” Riemer said. “I think they knew precisely how much power they had under the P3 law.”
Former Montgomery County executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said finding a way to relieve traffic congestion would be a big political win for Hogan. Anything that would help the Beltway and I-270 is “very popular” and worth exploring, he said.
Hogan has already invested in transit by building the Purple Line and contributing more to rehabilitate Metro, Duncan said. He said the county’s Democratic leadership of “no-growthers” is out of step with residents — and is not a constituency that Hogan needs to court.
“You don’t often see a governor saying, ‘I want to put billions of dollars into your infrastructure,’ ” Duncan said. “For Montgomery County to say no right off the bat without saying let’s look at this is the result of who’s controlling the Democratic Party now.”
But other supporters of the toll lane proposal say the state needs to take local concerns more seriously.
Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), chairwoman of the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee, said her upcounty constituents stuck on I-270 daily “are desperate for something to change.”
Even so, she said, “A lot of times, the governor’s people want to come in and tell us how it’s going to be and what he’s going to do for us rather than sitting down with us and hammering out something we can agree on. . . . I’m hoping the Board of Public Works tells them to go back to the drawing board and work as a group to figure this out.”