The Maryland Board of Public Works has approved the plan by Gov. Larry Hogan to create public-private partnerships to expand Interstate 270 and the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway. The first contracts could be signed as early as next year.
The decision should please Frederick commuters who struggle every day with the nightmarish traffic on their way to work in Montgomery County, the District and Virginia. Relief may be a long way off, but at least the state is moving the right direction — finally.
The board, which is made up of the governor, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, must approve all state contracts, even when the spending has been authorized by the Maryland General Assembly. The vote was 2-1, with Kopp opposed.
The decision will allow the state to solicit and evaluate long-term contracts with teams of private firms to build toll lanes to add capacity to the clogged highways. These private consortiums would design, build and operate up to four toll lanes on each highway at an estimated cost of $11 billion. In return, they would keep most of the toll revenue over the term of the contract. They will also be required to rebuild bridges, overpasses and the existing lanes, which will remain free.
Hogan has said it would be the largest public-private partnership ever in the United States. He originally wanted to move forward first on the Beltway portion of the project but switched to the I-270 project because that portion faces less opposition.
Opposition to the plan has been loudest in Montgomery County, where local leaders have charged the expansion would destroy too many homes and businesses along the path of the highways. But studies conducted thus far do not support that.
So far, the state’s study has found up to 34 homes and four businesses, almost all in Montgomery County, would be destroyed to widen the Beltway. The study of I-270, south of I-370, so far has found no homes or businesses that would be destroyed. The study of I-270 from I-370 to Frederick has not been done yet, but we would expect minimal impact there as well.
While tearing down a house or business to expand a road is unpleasant, it is also necessary. The traffic situation on both of these arteries is terrible on the best days, when weather or crashes don’t escalate the damage.
Opponents also argue that more use of mass transit would be preferable to adding traffic capacity. It might be — in an ideal world. But we don’t live in that world. The reality is that we have a strong commuter transit system with buses, Metro and the MARC trains, but the roads are a disaster anyway. Many people just cannot give up driving their own automobile because of time constraints, child care responsibilities or other valid concerns.
We applaud the amendments offered by Franchot and included in the contract that will allow buses to travel free of charge on the toll lanes, provide for a study of a monorail line from Frederick to the Shady Grove Metro station and earmark 10 percent of the state’s share of the toll revenue to mass transit projects.
The state should make transit more available and more affordable, but it is highly unrealistic to believe that it can actually replace the private car for commuting.
We would be remiss if we concluded without noting the irony of Gov. Hogan pushing so hard for this massive public-private partnership while he has maintained unyielding opposition to a public-private partnership in Frederick to construct the downtown hotel.
Hogan and other GOP opponents dislike the idea of the state helping a private company build a hotel to support economic development in the city, but they cheer wildly when the state partners with private companies help solve traffic congestion (and in large part to sustain economic development) in the National Capital Region.
It is more than a little inconsistent.