After a Maryland plan to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 with toll lanes recently lost a key vote among Washington-area leaders, some opponents pronounced Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature transportation project dead, or close to it.
“I know there are discussions,” said Gaithersburg City Council member Neil Harris, a planning board member and toll lane supporter. “The assumption is that some at the [board] can be persuaded to go in a different direction.”
Toll lane opponents say they, too, expect Hogan (R) to seek another vote, especially because he has highlighted the need to invest in infrastructure as he weighs a run for president.
“Obviously, Governor Hogan has a lot of political capital in this, and I expect he’ll continue to push for it,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a group that advocates for transit.
Both supporters and critics of the highway expansion plan say they expect Hogan to apply political pressure across the Washington region as he tries again to have it included in the region’s next federally required air pollution analysis — a prerequisite for federal environmental approval. The Maryland Department of Transportation announced in recent days that it will need to cut other “critical” road and transit projects if it doesn’t get the $6 billion in private financing it’s counting on as part of the toll lanes package — a move that Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) called “arm-twisting.”
Another possibility: MDOT could agree to add more money for mass transit or make other concessions to appease local officials in Maryland, as well as some in the District and Northern Virginia, who have said they will stand by their political counterparts over any objections.
“We’re still willing to talk,” said Elrich, an influential critic of the proposal.
Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said Elrich and other Montgomery officials fighting the project have previously endorsed toll lanes on the western part of the Beltway and the lower section of I-270.
“We worked with local leaders to make the project happen — repeatedly,” Ricci said in an email. “In fact, what’s on the table is exactly what Montgomery County leaders asked for. But now their reckless actions have put a new [American Legion] Bridge and every project in the region at risk. Commuters and transit riders deserve to know the consequences of county leaders’ actions.”
MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said agency officials were unavailable for an interview. In an email, she declined to say whether MDOT would seek another vote. However, she said MDOT plans to tell the planning board at its July 21 meeting which other road and transit projects it will need to cut. She said the agency also will ask the board to add back the replacement of the American Legion Bridge to make it eligible for federal funding.
Asked whether MDOT was urging regional planning board members to reconsider the toll lanes proposal, Henson wrote, “We are currently discussing the best way to further illustrate the value of the project and the cost to the region of not doing the project with the projected population and job growth in the National Capital Region.”
Hogan has said toll lanes — two in each direction — would offer badly needed traffic relief and form a regional network of express lanes with Northern Virginia. The project would include replacing the aging American Legion Bridge with a wider span. Hogan has said construction would come at “no net cost” to taxpayers because companies would finance the highway expansions in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue.
Critics say Hogan’s plan would harm public parkland, streams and adjacent communities. They say it also would give short shrift to mass transit, promote auto-dependent sprawl and increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Supporters say they are lining up new votes on the regional planning board, though it’s unclear how many they will need. The project was rejected by a vote of 16 to 13. However, the official tally was slightly further apart because it was based on a complex formula weighted by each jurisdiction’s population.
Toll lane advocates are eyeing the nine members who abstained or were absent, including the vacant board seat for the Virginia House of Delegates. The Virginia Department of Transportation has called the Maryland highway expansion “a critical transportation improvement” for the region. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) also has called for widening the American Legion Bridge as the state plans to extend its own Beltway toll lanes from the Dulles Toll Road toward the Maryland line.
Toll lane supporters also would have a new “yes” from Maryland Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who secured an appointment to the board’s vacant seat representing the state Senate after the proposal failed.
“All I know is I think we have too much to lose to let that project die,” said King, who represents the upcounty area. “Does it need to be tweaked? Maybe. But I think it would be a terrible mistake to not let it go forward.”
Supporters also say they expect the Hogan administration to reach out to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), whose transportation and planning agencies abstained from the board vote. Transportation departments typically back one another’s projects, board observers say.
D.C. Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood said in a statement that the agency had “determined it would be best to abstain so as not to take a side on a matter that is outside of its jurisdiction” after it became “clear that there were strong disagreements between affected jurisdictions.” The D.C. Department of Transportation did not respond to emails seeking comment about why it abstained.
To board members who opposed the highway expansion, MDOT “could say, ‘Which projects will I need to take from you to do the American Legion Bridge and maintain these other roads?’” said Edgar Gonzalez, of the pro-toll-lanes Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance. “If I’m playing hardball, I could say, ‘I’m having problems getting money for transit in Prince George’s or Montgomery County.’”
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who opposes the Hogan plan, said she told board colleagues before the vote that it would hurt regional efforts to fight greenhouse gas emissions. She said she, too, has heard that MDOT is pursuing another vote.
“I think it just speaks to the tone-deaf position that MDOT has taken on this,” Newton said. “It’s not about getting the best plan or working with the community. It’s about using the bully pulpit.”
Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass (D-At Large), who also opposed the project, said the governor could make the highway expansion plan more palatable to local officials by agreeing to invest more in MARC commuter rail, Metro and bus rapid transit.
“If the governor wants to move forward,” Glass said, “he simply has to make it more environmentally friendly, and that’s his decision to make.”
Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey, a planning board member, said Virginians would “clearly benefit” from an unclogged American Legion Bridge. But he voted against Hogan’s plan, he said, because he believes that MDOT needs to address local officials’ concerns.
“There’s nothing to prevent MDOT from doing what I hope would’ve been done before, and that is to engage with localities to get different perspectives,” Dorsey said. “After that takes place, I think you’ll get some regional consensus.”
Meanwhile, MDOT officials have indicated that they still plan to seek approval next month from the state’s Board of Public Works on a contract for two Australian firms to begin the toll lanes’ design.
The contract, whose awarding is under protest by a losing bidder, would give the firms the right of first refusal on a 50-year contract to build and operate the lanes. If the state cancels the project, it would have to reimburse up to $50 million of the firms’ expenses — a risk that critics say is too potentially costly to take until the project passes muster with regional officials.