ANNAPOLIS — A board voted Wednesday to move ahead with preliminary work on a multibillion-dollar plan to ease choking traffic by replacing the aging American Legion Bridge linking Maryland and Virginia and create toll lanes for Interstate 270 and parts of the beltway ringing the nation’s capital.
Maryland’s three-member Board of Public Works, which includes Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, approved a predevelopment agreement for a public-private partnership on a 2-1 vote.
Hogan, who voted with Franchot for the roughly $6 billion estimated plan, described it as a “historic and transformative traffic-relief plan.”
A final construction contract would still need to come before the board for final approval.
The agreement approved Wednesday includes up to $50 million that the state would pay companies for work that is completed, if the project does not advance. The Maryland Department of Transportation could use what gets done, including design, in a future solicitation for the bridge, which must be replaced or significantly upgraded within the next decade.
“This traffic relief plan is a win for families, commuters and small businesses, and it will finally begin to solve the soul-crushing, worst-in-the-nation traffic that people have failed to address for 50 years,” Hogan, a Republican, said at the start of the board meeting.
The proposal would create four toll lanes — two in each direction — on both Interstate 270 and the western part of the beltway. It would be done in two phases along I-270, first to Interstate 370 and then from I-370 to Interstate 70 in Frederick.
Transportation Secretary Greg Slater noted that the plan is a scaled-back effort. Four years ago, he said, the state was considering four express toll lanes on all of the beltway and I-270. The scope has been modified to focus on about 37 miles in state’s populous suburbs of the nation’s capital.
“It’s about trying to provide some relief to congestion with another option to choose, and it’s about finding alternative ways to deliver the infrastructure, because our needs far outweigh the resources that we have,” Slater said.
Franchot, a Democrat, said he voted for the preliminary work after state transportation officials confirmed that no construction award contract would be presented to the board next year until the completion of all federal, state and local environmental impact studies and permits required.
“As a Montgomery County resident of more than 40 years, I know firsthand how the traffic congestion in the D.C. Metro area impacts the quality of life of our residents,” Franchot said in a statement after the vote. “We may not all agree on the solutions, but we all agree this is a significant problem that must be addressed.”
Kopp, a Democrat, said she recognized action was needed to address the terrible traffic congestion. However, she opposed moving ahead with the plan, because there was not enough information about environmental impacts and why the state needed to use a public-private partnership instead of traditional financing.
Two Australian companies, Transurban and Macquarie, will develop the toll lanes while a contract is negotiated with the companies to build the lanes and pay for them in exchange for most of the revenue raised from tolls.
State Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat who spoke against the plan, noted that the board was moving ahead with a public-private partnership, just as the U.S. Senate this week approved a nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
“We know that this is a historic opportunity to get federal funding, so why would we want to engage with a private partnership with someone else getting the profits, soaking our constituents, when we could get a piece of that for roads, bridges and mass transit from the bill that passed 69 to 30 last night?” Kagan said.