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Maryland board approves $45 million more for consultant on Beltway, I-270 toll lanes project

The firms, which will receive $135 million total, are helping the state with engineering and the environmental review, MDOT says

The American Legion Bridge, seen here in July, would be rebuilt and expanded as part of Maryland's plan to add express toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A Maryland board approved an additional $45 million Wednesday for the engineering consultant assisting the state with its plan to add express toll lanes to part of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

The 2-to-1 approval by the Board of Public Works — made up of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) — increases the contract value by 50 percent, from $90 million to $135 million.

Kopp, who has questioned the project’s financial underpinnings, voted against what she called “a 50 percent increase for the very first baby step” in a years-long process.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater said a team of companies that will finance, build and operate the lanes will reimburse the state. That money will come from a $145 million “development rights fee” that the private team — led by Australian toll road operator Transurban — has pledged to pay when a 50-year contract is signed and from a “concessionaire fee” that will be negotiated as part of that deal, he said.

“It’s all developer money,” Slater said.

Maryland board approves first contract to design toll lanes for Beltway, I-270

He said the Maryland Department of Transportation needed additional consulting help after Montgomery County officials asked that it study ways to avoid widening the northern part of the Beltway. A state study found doing so would harm streams and parkland, and potentially require up to 34 homes to be torn down. MDOT’s decision to spare that section — and win the tepid support of many Montgomery leaders — by ending the first segment of toll lanes near Old Georgetown Road also required that the state update its federally required draft environmental impact statement.

The state plans to add four toll lanes — two in each direction — on the Beltway from the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge to Old Georgetown Road and up I-270 to Interstate 70 in Frederick. The lower part of I-270, ending around the Intercounty Connector, would be built first, and one of its toll lanes would come from converting the carpool lane.

MDOT officials have said the consultant provides expertise in engineering, project management, construction management, soil testing, and tolling and revenue studies. The consulting team is made up of Reynolds, Smith & Hills Inc., WSP USA Solutions, and Whitman, Requardt & Associates. MDOT had to rebid the contract in 2018 after it was revealed that the companies originally selected had ties to then-transportation secretary Pete K. Rahn.

“There’s no question that … adding things that some of the opponents wanted is [behind] some of the increase in the costs,” Hogan said. “It’s not the same project that was envisioned.”

Maryland scales back most controversial part of Beltway toll lanes plan

But Kopp, who is appointed by the General Assembly, questioned why MDOT appeared to be “blaming” local leaders and community groups for seeking changes on a project that many had objected to from the outset.

She said she also remained concerned that her office had been denied funding to hire outside experts to review what it considered to be “significant uncertainties” with the project’s costs and risks. Hogan has said the lanes will come at “no net cost” to the state.

“I just hope that you will continue to be as transparent as possible,” said Kopp, who recently announced she will retire at the end of the year. “There are still a lot of concerns about this project.”