ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Board of Public Works voted 2 to 1 Wednesday to allow the state to solicit private companies to build and operate toll lanes on Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway as part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to ease traffic congestion in the Washington suburbs.
In a change to Hogan’s initial proposal, the I-270 lanes will be built first. Adding toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge and Interstate 495 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which has been more controversial, will be phases 2 and 3.
Hogan said the American Legion Bridge, which connects Maryland and Virginia along the Beltway, needed the most immediate relief. However, he said he would “reluctantly” prioritize I-270 because it was less controversial than the Beltway, where widening would require destroying more homes.
“This transformative project that we’re voting on today is about finally taking the first step to move forward and to finally take action on an issue that unfortunately elected officials have literally ignored for decades,” said Hogan, a Republican. “It will result in less traffic, more peace of mind, cleaner air, and a much better quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Marylanders for decades to come.”
He added, “I’m moving forward with 270 because more people want to do 270.”
Delaying the bridge and Beltway portion by two years, he said, would give state transportation officials more time to work with leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s to address their concerns.
The vote designating the toll lanes project as a public-private partnership allows the Maryland Department of Transportation to begin pursuing proposals from teams of companies.
The consortiums would design, build and operate up to four toll lanes on each highway — and pay for the construction — in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue over 50 years. They will also rebuild decades-old overpasses and the existing lanes, which will remain free.
Hogan has said the contracts — valued at more than $11 billion — would be the largest public-private partnership ever in the United States.
Frederick County Councilman Kai Hagen testified against the plan, saying the plan didn’t take an environmental approach and look strongly enough at climate change.
“Compared to any alternative possible today, this plan is the single worst option in terms of climate change,” including doing nothing, Hagen said.
Along with opposition from Hagen, delegates Karen Lewis Young and Ken Kerr, both representing Frederick County, were two of nearly 60 state legislators who signed a letter opposing the plan this week.
However, Sen. Michael Hough, a longtime supporter of the plan, praised Hogan and the Board of Public Works for approving the plan.
“I sincerely thank Governor Hogan for his leadership and Comptroller Franchot for voting to move forward on Frederick County’s biggest infrastructure need, which is expanding I-270,” Hough said in a statement. “Commuters are snarled in nightmarish traffic throughout the day on this outdated highway. I’m very happy to see real progress to expand I-270.”
Hough added that he was pleased to see the amendment to study a monorail system linking Frederick to the Metro system’s Red Line added to the plan.
The approval is significant because it starts a relatively fast-paced process in which companies will spend millions of dollars to put together detailed engineering proposals and line up financing.
State officials have said they would release a “request for qualifications” to the private sector within a couple months of the board’s approval and seek the board’s approval for the first of five 50-year contracts in fall 2020. It’s unclear how changing the order to solicit proposals for I-270 first might affect that schedule.
All federally required environmental reviews would be complete before any contracts are finalized, transportation officials said.
Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, voted for the plan. Democratic Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who is appointed by the General Assembly, voted against it.
The Maryland Board of Public Works also voted 2-1 to approve Franchot’s amendments to allow buses to use the toll lanes free and to study the feasibility of an elevated monorail line adjacent to I-270 from Shady Grove to Frederick. Additionally, 10 percent of the state’s share of any toll revenue would be allotted to mass transit in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
The governor’s support of Franchot’s amendments appeared to be a peace offering to transit advocates and elected leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who had complained that transit had been given short shrift in Hogan’s “highways-only” traffic relief plan.
Franchot also addressed a risk that state transportation officials also likely have been weighing — the fact that growing political discord over the project could discourage companies from bidding on, or loaning money to, a project that lacked broad public and political support.
“I can’t imagine the private sector not being intensely interested in this” project, Franchot said, “because I think a lot of opponents from our local jurisdictions will begin to be mollified by the changes we’re making today.”
Hogan changed the order of the toll lanes construction after more than three hours of discussion, including sometimes testy exchanges between the governor and some toll lane opponents, at a packed meeting at the statehouse in Annapolis. Afterward, supporters and opponents of the plan were left scratching their heads and asking each other what had just happened.
It was unclear, for example, where the lanes will be built first — on the lower part of I-270 between the Beltway and I-370, which state officials have said would be more lucrative for the private sector, or between I-370 and Frederick, where northbound traffic grinds to a halt every evening as the highway narrows from six lanes to two.
Widening the upper portion first could delay the project by two years because the federally required environmental impact study, which typically takes about that long, hasn’t begun for that section.
Even so, the impacts for I-270 are expected to be much less significant than for the Beltway because I-270 generally has far more public right of way.
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, along with pieces of another 1,262 properties. The study of the lower part of I-270, south of I-370, so far has found no homes or businesses that would be destroyed and up to 234 pieces of property that would need to be taken.
Even supporters of toll lanes on I-270 said expanding it before the Beltway could make morning traffic jams worse, with a much wider I-270 dumping traffic onto a four-lane Outer Loop and a bridge that’s already backed up daily.
“Coming south in the morning, the backup is at the spur and the bridge,” said Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, which supported adding the I-270 lanes. “You can’t fix I-270 south without fixing the bridge.”
Under the plan, the new lanes will have variable tolling; the cost to use them would rise with congestion to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
Maryland state highway administrator Greg Slater told the board that the formula for calculating the tolls will be determined in each contract, but that the board for the Maryland Transportation Authority will approve a range.
News-Post editor Allen Etzler contributed to this report.