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In compromise, Hogan highway expansion project to proceed in phases

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland will proceed with at least one phase of a controversial proposal to expand two D.C.-area highways with toll lanes.

A three-hour meeting of the Board of Public Works that featured testimony from more than three dozen opponents and supporters of Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to ease congestion on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 ended in a surprise compromise that reorders the three phases of the overall project. The three-member board also adopted changes suggested by Comptroller Peter Franchot that will direct a feasibility study on a monorail system and earmark a portion of the state share of tolls for transit projects.

“This thing has always been thought of as three different phases,” said Hogan, calling all three “critically needed.”

“Our intention is to complete all three of these phases but again it’s a long-term process,” said Hogan.

Hogan was joined by Franchot in voting in favor of the initial approval. Treasurer Nancy Kopp, the third member of the board, voted against.

“Clearly we’re now talking, and I think that’s a great step forward,” said Kopp.

But she expressed concerns about voting for a project of the size proposed by Hogan without seeing information on costs and environmental studies.

“I just think there is a lot of discussion and transparency that would benefit us all in the long run,” she said.

As part of Hogan’s compromise, the governor announced the state will move forward first with a section of I-270 that stretches from Frederick County to the Capital Beltway.

Hogan demoted his top priority, the stretch of Interstate 495 in Montgomery County to Interstate 95, including the American Legion Bridge, to a second phase because of significant opposition to the plan by some community and environmental organizations and elected officials. Hogan called this the worst of the congestion.

“However, this phase has generated the most concerns from citizens and the strongest opposition from local Montgomery County elected officials, who have asked us to delay these much-needed improvements,” Hogan said. “Reluctantly, we will agree to that delay.”

Community and environmental groups and elected officials all raised concerns about the environmental impacts and use of eminent domain. Still, some say they’d like to see the state move ahead with widening the American Legion Bridge as part of the first phase rather than linking it to a plan to which they object.

“I think that’s a real problem. I can’t envision what’s going to happen when everyone drains down,” Kopp said before Hogan cut her off by talking over her.

Hogan, at least for now, dug his heels in, saying changes to the bridge remain part of the second phase.

“You can’t cut the two phases in half and paste them back together,” Hogan said, adding later, “the phases cannot change at this point.”

Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker, chair of the council’s transportation committee, applauded the governor’s changes and held out hope that a deal could be reached to include the bridge in an early portion of the project.

“I hope that’s not the final word on this,” said Hucker. “It was a relatively improvisational atmosphere … so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to work some of these details out with them.”

A stretch of I-495 in Prince George’s County was moved to the third phase, where Hogan said he believed it was possible toll lanes might never be built.

Hogan said he downgraded that portion of the proposal because of vocal opposition from the Prince George’s County Council and Rep. Anthony Brown, who lost to Hogan in the 2014 gubernatorial general election. Hogan held out hope that the lanes could be “done at some potential point in the future.”

Franchot called Hogan’s announcement “a game changer because of all the things everyone has been talking about.”

“I happen to not be a vegetarian or a carnivore. I’m an omnivore as far as relieving (traffic) congestion,” said Franchot. “This, I think, opens up a very collaborative approach to actually making progress on something that has lingered for years.”

Hogan announced the widening projects in September 2017 as part of larger $9-$11 billion proposal to alleviate traffic congestion. That larger proposal could one day include the additions of toll lanes along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway between Baltimore and Washington.

Board action Wednesday is a preliminary step that designates the project as a public-private partnership and allows the Department of Transportation to begin soliciting bids for private consortiums to build and manage the lanes. The cost of the construction would be paid by the companies, which would recoup their costs over 50 years before handing the lanes back over to the state.

The parkway project remains in limbo as the state negotiates with the federal government over portions owned by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The combined costs of the projects are considered to be the largest public-private partnership proposal in the country. By comparison, the 16.2 mile Purple Line light-rail line connecting Bethesda to New Carrollton is expected to cost $2.4 billion.

The board also adopted changes requested by Franchot.

Included in the changes were provisions that: stipulates no acquisition of property take place until the board gives final agreement to a consortium; permits transit bus access to toll lanes free of charge; earmarks 10 percent of the state share of tolls after reimbursing for construction costs to regional transit services in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties; and provides for a feasibility study of a 27-mile monorail transit system that would link Frederick to Shady Grove along I-270.

“I think it’s an idea worth exploring,” said Franchot of the monorail proposal. “No idea whether it’s practical.”



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