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Toll lanes project review held in shadow of Purple Line’s woes

Opponents of a proposal to add toll lanes around the Maryland portion of Interstate 495 called on lawmakers to recommend against the first phase of a proposed $6 billion public-private partnership.

Members of the House and Senate were briefed Tuesday on the project led by the consortium known as Accelerate Maryland Express Partners. But the project, which is in the preconstruction phase, is drawing comparison to the Purple Line, a much touted public-private partnership that has been hobbled by litigation, delays and cost overruns and is limping to the finish line.

“This P3 contract is not an advantageous deal for Maryland taxpayers,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said of the proposal to add toll lanes. “It’s not ready for prime time.”

Tulkin’s group and others expressed concerns about the environment as well as the costs of the multibillion-dollar project, many of which are still being worked out

“I think from the Purple Line we’ve learned that the fine text is very very important,” Tulkin told a panel of lawmakers as part of a public hearing to review the project.

The legislative review process cannot stop the projec,t but lawmakers can make recommendations to Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp in advance of any vote by the Board of Public Works to approve contracts.

Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s hearing featured negative comparisons of the toll lanes project to the floundering Purple Line light rail project.

“I expect the administration when they come to present will talk about how this is a progressive P3 and they’re going to work hand-in-glove with Accelerate Maryland, also known as Transurban, to figure out the types of issues that have bedeviled the Purple Line,” said Del. Marc Korman, D-Montgomery and chairman of the transportation & the environment subcommittee, which supported the light rail project. “And I hope that’s true, I hope that we are able to avoid, when and if this goes through, the types of issues we’ve seen with the Purple Line.”

Korman said the light rail project “is frankly a disaster.”

Key among the concerns over the toll lanes project is a lack of a final environmental study for the project and also the lack of a so-called value-for-money analysis in which the state would review the cost of the proposed final project and determine if the state could complete the same project or something similar for a lower cost.

“The way we’ve structured this project and the shift that we made in this project probably about a year or so ago is very much due to the challenges we’re having with the Purple Line in doing a project development agreement,” Transportation Secretary Greg Slater told lawmakers.

Those changes included bringing a developer onboard early as the state refines the project and the environmental process.

“At the end of the process you get to the agreed-upon scope and price,” said Slater, adding that the change allows the state to avoid “awarding a contract and then having to adjust that price later on.’

Gov. Larry Hogan is seeking to expand capacity on the Capital Beltway from the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia, across the American Legion Bridge, and up Interstate 270 (including both spurs) to Interstate 70 in Frederick. The initial plan, which would be built under a public private partnership, would add two toll lanes in each direction.

A final award of the project to Accelerate Maryland Express Partners, a 16-company group led by Australia-based Transurban, is contingent on approval by the Board of Public Works. That approval could come as soon as the panel’s July 28 meeting. The consortium, in a letter, declined to appear at Tuesday’s briefing because of ongoing litigation.

Currently, there is a legal challenge to the preliminary award, which does not include any construction, to the consortium.

The consortium would build and maintain the project for 50 years and receive payments from tolls collected before the property reverts back to the state.

Korman made it clear that he wants to avoid the sort of problems that have bedeviled the Purple Line project, which is the largest public-private partnership in the state.

“The project is years behind schedule, litigation between the state and the contractor is rampant and we still do not know the true cost of the project, and again I say that as a supporter of the Purple Line,” said Korman. “Governor Hogan likes to talk about all the money the state saved with a $250 million settlement with the (Purple Line) construction contractor to walk away and it’s true that the disputed costs were $800 million, but we still have no idea what of those costs the state will ultimately have to pay.”



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