The board’s vote clears the way for the state to solicit bids worth billions of dollars from private companies that would pay for and operate a new and improved American Legion Bridge and up to four new toll lanes added to the Beltway from the bridge to I-270, and on I-270 itself from the Beltway north to Shady Grove. The plan, if structured well, should be a good deal for Marylanders: Contractors, not taxpayers, would pay for the roads in return for most of the long-term revenue from the new toll lanes, whose prices would fluctuate according to congestion to keep traffic on them moving. The existing lanes of both roads would be rebuilt and would remain free to motorists.
As approved, the plan addresses major rush-hour choke points. But it stops short of adding toll roads to widen the Beltway from I-270 to Interstate 95, and to I-270 north of Shady Grove, meaning that rush-hour gridlock would be pushed farther east and north. That was among the compromises struck to win support from one man: state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who held the board’s swing vote.
Mr. Franchot, weighing a race for governor when Mr. Hogan’s term expires, demanded the scaled-down construction among other concessions, including a sensible one that would require the contractors to turn over more upfront revenue for local transit projects in coordination with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. His stance was tailor-made to appease vocal opposition in those very vote-rich counties, whose support he would need in a gubernatorial race.
Opponents to the full plan object that several dozen houses would be razed along the Beltway and argue that the region needs more transit, not more roads. In fact, as Mr. Franchot must know, it needs to add both highway and transit capacity simply to keep traffic from getting even worse — which, make no mistake, is inevitable as the region’s population continues to boom. Mr. Hogan’s original plan held that promise; the plan as approved serves a useful but diminished purpose to get the ball rolling.
If contracts are signed next year, as the downsized plan envisions, the state will have shifted the critical work of finishing the job to the next governor. If that is Mr. Franchot, he will need to show more backbone than he has demonstrated as comptroller.