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Maryland says it needs to cut transit, highway projects to offset lost private investment in toll lanes plan

Montgomery County’s executive says Gov. Larry Hogan is ‘arm-twisting’ after his toll proposal lost a key vote last week

Maryland transportation officials say the state will have to cut other D.C.-area highway and transit projects if it doesn't get $6 billion in private investment to replace the aging American Legion Bridge and expand the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A week after losing a key vote on a state plan to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, Maryland transportation officials said they must cut other road and transit projects to offset $6 billion in private investment that would be lost with the highway-widening proposal.

The letter dated Monday from the Maryland Department of Transportation to the region’s Transportation Planning Board prompted one local official — and a key toll lanes critic — to accuse Gov. Larry Hogan (R) of “arm-twisting” to try to win back support for his highway plan.

In the letter, deputy transportation secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr. said the state had counted on $6 billion in private financing as part of a public-private partnership to replace the aging American Legion Bridge and make other highway improvements, along with building the toll lanes. Without that private investment, Lewis said, the state would have to divert money from other transit and highway projects to maintain the bridge and interstates as federally required.

Projects in Maryland’s part of the Washington region’s long-range plan “will almost certainly need to be downgraded to studies or removed entirely to offset the loss of revenue” needed to preserve the bridge and highways if the private financing becomes unavailable, the letter said.

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The letter came in response to the Transportation Planning Board — an arm of the region’s Council of Governments — voting last week to remove the toll lanes proposal from an air pollution analysis required for all projects in the region’s long-range transportation plan. Jurisdictions also may include only projects that they “reasonably” expect to be able to pay for, according to the TPB website.

The vote dealt a major blow to Hogan’s signature traffic-relief proposal. Without being in that long-range plan, state officials say, it can’t secure the federally required environmental approval.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), who asked that the toll lanes proposal be removed, called it “kind of alarming” that the Hogan administration would threaten state funding for other projects.

“Of course it’s arm-twisting,” Elrich said. “He’s threatening something that doesn’t have to happen. This is purely a power play.”

Elrich said he was surprised by the letter because state and local transportation staffers had been meeting regularly to discuss the county’s objections, including the potential effects on the environment and surrounding communities.

“At least let us know the talks are over,” Elrich said.

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Asked about Elrich’s “arm-twisting” comment, Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in an email, “The letter lays out the real world consequences of Montgomery County’s actions, which have put a new bridge and every project in the region at risk. The county executive shouldn’t try to hide the truth from commuters and transit riders.”

MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson added, “Every dollar that was funded by the private sector means another dollar in potential state and federal funding that will have to come out of critical transportation initiatives in every corner of the state.”

It was unclear how much MDOT would have to cut back financially without private financing. Much of the toll lanes proposal’s apparent $6 billion cost would go toward adding two toll lanes in each direction — presumably beyond the scope of federally required system preservation.

Maryland scales back most controversial part of Beltway toll lanes plan

Henson said MDOT “is just beginning the process of assessing” which projects will need to be cut or scaled back.

Maryland transportation officials have said the bridge, a major traffic chokepoint, is nearing 60 years old and will need to be replaced or have its deck redone in the next decade.

MDOT recently selected a consortium of companies led by Australian toll road operator Transurban to develop designs for a new bridge and wider highways. The state plans for a private consortium to finance and build the project in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue over 50 years.