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Maryland election could decide fate of Beltway, I-270 toll lanes

The potential party nominees disagree on a state plan to reduce traffic congestion by expanding the highways

The American Legion Bridge, seen here last summer, would be rebuilt and widened as part of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's plan to add toll lanes to part of the Beltway and I-270. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The results of Maryland’s July 19 primary elections could decide the fate of a state plan to widen part of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 with express toll lanes as Gov. Larry Hogan (R) faces possible delays in securing a key contract before leaving office.

Hogan’s administration has said it plans to seek approval from the state’s Board of Public Works this fall for a public-private partnership worth billions of dollars to finance, build and operate the lanes — one of the state’s largest infrastructure proposals. That would lock Maryland into a 50-year contract with a private concessionaire before Hogan, who is term-limited, leaves in January. It also would clinch Hogan’s signature traffic relief initiative while he still has a second vote of support on the three-member board from Comptroller Peter Franchot, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

But that timing has become more precarious amid a bid protest that has lingered in court, expectations of an environmental lawsuit from opponents and a private concessionaire that has yet to hire a lead construction contractor. The uncertainty has increased the chances the toll lanes proposal could end up in the hands of a new governor, who could move it forward, scale it back or cancel it altogether.

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Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), a legislative leader on transportation issues and a toll lanes critic, said Hogan knows his successor could alter his plan, as Hogan did when he approved a scaled-back light-rail Purple Line project while canceling a long-planned Red Line rail project in Baltimore.

“He should not be surprised if the next governor wants to put their fingerprints on a transportation project that he thinks is lined up and ready to go, which is exactly what he did,” Korman said.

The results of the primary elections will determine if the toll lanes proposal is even an issue in the November general election.

Both leading Republican candidates for governor say they support expanding the highways, although one said he would not pursue toll lanes. The differences are wider in the Democratic primary, where three of the five candidates leading in a recent Goucher College poll said they would either scrap the plan in favor of expanding mass transit or change it significantly. Their changes would include reducing the amount of highway widening, adding more transit or pursuing federal funding rather than profit-seeking private investors.

“The next governor will have an awful lot of work and an awful lot of evidence suggesting we have to address the congestion on these roads,” said David Winstead, a toll lanes supporter and former state transportation secretary under then-Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D).

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The Maryland Department of Transportation declined to answer questions about when it would seek approval of a long-term toll lanes contract. In an email, the agency said the timing would depend on the federal government’s approval of the project’s environmental impact analysis and the private concessionaire hiring a construction contractor.

A spokeswoman for the private consortium, led by Australian toll road operator Transurban, also declined to discuss the timing, saying the team was continuing its design and engineering work, and “concluding an active procurement” for a construction partner.

Supporters of the project say Hogan, who has weighed a presidential run and touts his own efforts to fix the nation’s infrastructure, still has time to get a toll lanes contract through the board before his term ends. However, they concede it would be tight and probably require taking the financial risk of signing a contract amid pending litigation — either the bid protest, an environmental lawsuit, or both.

Canceling the project also could require the state to reimburse the Transurban team up to $50 million of its predevelopment costs, according to an agreement signed last year.

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The proposal evokes the age-old political debate about whether the Washington region’s crippling traffic congestion is best relieved by expanding roads or mass transit — or some combination of both.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly M. Schulz, Hogan’s former commerce secretary, said she’s “extremely supportive” of the toll lanes plan. Other candidates, she said, had supported “silly ideas” to try to reduce traffic congestion with more mass transit, such as by building a monorail in the I-270 corridor to Frederick.

“The majority of people commuting in the D.C. region are via the roads,” Schulz said. “ … We want to be able to make sure we keep those roads as operable and as efficient for the end user as we possibly can.”

Toll lane opponents say the election of a project critic would buy time to explore more cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways to reduce driving, curb auto-dependent sprawl and combat climate change.

Democratic candidate John B. King Jr., a former U.S. education secretary, said voters want frequent and reliable mass transit options, particularly in Baltimore. He and every other leading Democratic candidate said they would revive the city’s light-rail Red Line project that Hogan canceled after calling it a “wasteful boondoggle.”

“In general,” King said, “highway widening is bad for the climate and ultimately bad for traffic by inducing demand.”

Some Democratic candidates also said the state shouldn’t risk committing to a 50-year toll lanes contract amid potentially lengthy court battles that could result in design changes or construction delays.

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The losing bidder on the toll lanes’ predevelopment agreement, a team led by Spanish firm Cintra, has alleged that Transurban’s winning bid “gamed” the selection process by assuming unrealistically low construction costs. Different aspects of the case are being considered in Montgomery County Circuit Court and the state’s Court of Special Appeals.

Anti-toll lanes activists would have five months after the project receives federal environmental approval to challenge it in court. The Maryland Sierra Club has said it’s considering a lawsuit. State officials have said they expect federal approval later this summer.

A judge’s surprise ruling in an environmental lawsuit against the Purple Line project after that 36-year contract had been signed stalled the light-rail construction for almost a year, the start of extended delays. The project is more than four years behind schedule and $1.46 billion, or nearly 75 percent, over budget.

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“I really think it’s important when you’re talking about potential 50-year obligations to make sure we’re asking all the right questions,” said Tom Perez, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. labor secretary who opposes Hogan’s toll lanes plan. “I think rushing something because a governor’s term ends in January is a recipe for potential disaster that obligates us for decades to come.”

The leading candidates for governor in both parties agree on some transportation issues. They generally support the state continuing to study how to reduce backups at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge with an additional crossing, although some Democrats said they also would analyze more transit options, such as adding bus or ferry service to the Eastern Shore. Many also agree the state needs to replace the 60-year-old American Legion Bridge, a chronic Beltway choke point.

Views on the toll lanes proposal diverge among candidates in the crowded race for the Democratic nomination.

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Under Hogan’s plan, four high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes — two in each direction — would run on the Beltway between the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge and the I-270 spur, then up I-270 to Frederick, starting with the section south of Interstate 370. I-270′s carpool lanes would be converted to HOT lanes.

The American Legion Bridge would be replaced and widened, and the regular lanes would remain free. The HOT lanes would be free for buses and vehicles with three or more people.

Hogan has said the lanes would come at “no net cost” to taxpayers — the only way he said the state could afford to expand the highways — because the private consortium would finance, build and operate them in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue.

Of the leading Democratic candidates, only Franchot said he would support the project in its current form. Another, former Maryland attorney general Doug Gansler, said he supports the idea but only if the state resolves what he called the “flawed” selection of the Transurban team. Gansler, a lawyer, represents the Cintra team in its bid protest. He said he also supports building light-rail between the Shady Grove Metro station and Frederick.

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Franchot said he doesn’t expect the board to consider a 50-year contract “until the very end of this year, if even that.” He said he successfully advocated to scale back the Hogan plan to avoid widening the Beltway east of I-270, where more homes and parkland would be affected, and for some toll revenue to be allocated more quickly to local transit projects.

“I can pretty much guarantee that people want us to make progress on both of these issues — mass transit and highways,” Franchot said. “ … This is important to the economy of the state.”

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Democrat Wes Moore, an author and former nonprofit executive, said the tolls would be too expensive for most motorists and criticized the Hogan administration’s approach for “very minimal public oversight and transparency.” He said he would “make sure all ideas and concepts are heard” about other ways to free up the Beltway and I-270, such as by adding fewer reversible lanes, using the shoulders and increasing MARC commuter rail service.

Support for expanding highways is more solid among the leading Republican candidates, who say more mass transit wouldn’t provide enough help to the vast majority of commuters and travelers who get around by car.

Schulz’s opponent, Del. Daniel L. Cox (Frederick), said I-270 has enough room for the state to immediately add reversible lanes. The state also has ample government funds and financing capability to do so without needing to charge tolls, he said.

“If the money isn’t there,” Cox said, “I’d like to know where the money has been spent.”

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Toll lane supporters and opponents also are watching the primary elections for comptroller. The chief tax collector doesn’t generally oversee transportation policy. However, a governor needs at least a second vote on the three-member Board of Public Works, either from the comptroller or state treasurer, to approve a contract.

State treasurer Dereck E. Davis (D), who is elected by the General Assembly, declined to comment on the toll lanes project. His predecessor, Nancy K. Kopp (D), repeatedly objected to Hogan’s plan, saying the state hadn’t adequately investigated its potential financial risks.

Both Democratic candidates for comptroller, Del. Brooke E. Lierman (Baltimore City) and Bowie Mayor Tim Adams, said they favor expanding mass transit over roads. Both said the state needs to reduce the need to drive, rather than attract more traffic to wider highways.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, the unopposed Republican candidate for comptroller, said the state should resolve the toll lanes bid protest before approving any long-term contract. But the project should then move forward as soon as possible, he said, even if opponents file an environmental lawsuit.

“Time is money with a lot of these projects,” Glassman said. “Any change in course or stopping a proposal is just going to have additional construction costs down the road, not to mention the cost for commuters in time, and wear and tear on their vehicles.”