Board of Public Works Allows Hogan's Highway Plan to Move Forward

But the decision to tackle all of I-270 first may create new problems for the controversial proposal

On Wednesday, June 5th 2019, the Board of Public Works authorized the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to proceed with the I-270/I-495 widening project as a public-private partnership.

Here are the basics of what happened, and what it may mean for opponents of the project and residents who live near the highways. (If you want to watch the meeting, you can do so here.)

1. Governor Hogan and Comptroller Franchot voted to formally make the I-270/I-495 project a P3, entitling MDOT to seek private funding. Treasurer Kopp voted against. 
2. Hogan amended the plan during the meeting to put I-270 FIRST for whatever changes they are going to make (until then, I-270 was going to be in two separate, later stages.) He also is delaying any changes to the American Legion Bridge.
3. Franchot offered several amendments, most of which appear to be meaningless. These are discussed below. 
4. Hogan made several references to establishing a process whereby MDOT and Montgomery and Prince George's County leaders would negotiate on plans for the beltway. No such provision was mentioned for I-270.

While the meeting at first appeared to seal the fate of I-270 neighbors while effectively granting a reprieve to those who live by I-495, the full implications of the decisions made are probably more complex. Clearly the acts of putting I-270 first, without modifications to the American Legion Bridge, and creating a mechanism for Montgomery and Prince George’s County leaders to negotiate with MDOT over beltway changes are all slaps in the face to the I-270 neighbors who have been opposing widening.

It was also extremely disappointing that Comptroller Franchot chose to back Hogan instead of his fiscal guardianship duties. It sounds as though Franchot was influenced by a call from County Executive Marcc Elrich to back Hogan’s revised plan: Franchot stated during the meeting that Elrich called him before hand to urge him to “do 270 … first, since that’s the one we all agree on.”

So, last Wednesday was frustrating in several ways.

However, the BPW meeting may actually have created more problems for Governor Hogan’s plans than they solved.. As Ben Ross with the Maryland Transportation Opportunities Coalition (MTOC) points out, the State has been following a federally mandated process for only a portion of I-270. It isn’t necessarily a simple thing for them to just add on the other half of I-270 eighteen months into the process – in other words, by putting all of I-270 first, the Governor may have forced MDOT to have to start the whole process over.
We aren’t sure of this, since it will come down to legal maneuvering and politics but it’s a clear possibility and we’ll keep close tabs on it.
Its also worth noting that even supporters of widening I-270 are strongly questioning the Governor’s decision to exclude the American Legion Bridge from the revised plans, since it is one of the worst choke points in the area.
Next, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Frederick County leaders aren’t all that enthusiastic about the evolving plans for the highway. As the Frederick News-Post reported on June 6th, elected officials there are asking questions about whether adding lanes will really lessen congestion and why transit isn’t a more central component of the Governor’s plan.
On top of that, the Montgomery National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) formally rejected MDOT’s “screened alternatives” for the highway project, as Maryland Matters reported. The MNCPPC’s action is significant because it is a formal stakeholder in the process, and when a formal stakeholder doesn’t agree with the plan, the Federal Highway Administration is supposed to step in to bring the sides into agreement. This may not mean everything gets fixed, but it does give the MNCPPC a much stronger say over the project than it had before.
In short, the week ended with Hogan having a lot more problems than he had before.

With the big picture stuff out of the way, here’s our take on the amendments Franchot made during the meeting. The amendments, which Franchot puts forward at 3:01:15 on the video, don't seem to add up to much. Here they are - transcribed from the video - with each followed by questions or commentary from regarding their meaning and impact.

1.       No acquisitions of property related to this project will take place prior to the BPW reviewing and voting up or down on the final P3 agreement following the competitive procurement process. Question: were any homes or property actually at risk before a final agreement is struck?  

2.       The RFP will contain a provision permitting mass transit bus access on the managed toll lanes. Without tolls. But this was already a done deal – see MDOT’s explanation of screened alternatives published in February 2019: “Bus usage, including consideration of additional express bus service as recommended by the TPB, will be examined in all ETL and HOT managed lanes alternatives to accommodate transit within the 495 and 270 roadways.”

3.       10% of all state net tolled proceeds after the private developer has been compensated for construction costs will be channeled to Montgomery and Prince George’s County regional transit. While the idea of extracting financing for transit out of this project is a pretty smart way to salvage something positive out of a terrible plan, we need to be realistic about what revenues this would yield. First, as has been pointed out many times, we have good reasons to be skeptical that the project will even pay for itself; if it doesn't, this amendment is meaningless. This amendment only means something if the 10% tithe is built into the toll pricing beforehand, since the tolls are supposed to be set at a level just high enough to pay the contractors back. There isn't supposed to be "overage" in the toll revenues since that would mean MDOT is making the tolls higher than they need to be, which would reduce the number of people choosing to pay them.  

4.       Feasibility study of the monorail from shady grove to Frederick as possibly a P3 or state support; that’s something the legislature might be open to. Hogan “I don’t know how deep of a study we’re going to do…I think its worth considering the idea; I’m willing to say we’re willing to do an initial feasibility study and consider that with the legislature to see if it makes any sense.” Given Hogan's comments about this, and MDOT’s earlier decision to reject all transit-only options for this project, we shouldn’t have any expectation this will yield more than a formal dismissal of the idea by MDOT.