Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Montgomery County Democrats hoping to run out the clock on $6B toll-lanes project

“It seems likely that the responsibility for this project is going to wind up with the next governor,” says Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich.(The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Montgomery County officials are hoping a delay in a final federal decision to expand portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 can be extended until a new governor takes office.

The Federal Highway Administration has delayed a decision on the proposal to build toll lanes to alleviate traffic congestion. The delay, which was requested by County Executive Marc Elrich and others, was meant to provide additional time to review a voluminous and complicated environmental impact study.

“It seems likely that the responsibility for this project is going to wind up with the next governor. I’m encouraged by some of the comments that have already been made by candidate Moore,” Elrich said, referring to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore. “I think it would be really helpful to work with somebody who is focused on a solution to the traffic problem rather than focused on having a P3. That is not the most important part of doing this project. The most important part is coming up with a reasonable traffic solution.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed a $6 billion public-private partnership to add four toll lanes — two in each direction — on both I-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.

On Friday, Hogan released a letter calling on President Joseph Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to overturn an “acting administrator’s rogue decision” to delay the project. Hogan has threatened legal action to force the agency to move the project forward.

Elrich said delaying the second phase would “leave the northern part of the county mired in massive congestion. It means going north in the evening would be absolutely hell once you start approaching the ICC.”

Elrich and other Montgomery County officials acknowledge the need to ease congestion. They disagree on the solution and continue to want state officials to consider reversible lanes or other options that can be built with state and federal money rather than toll lanes.

“There’s still no analysis on essentially how else we could do this project, potentially just with government funds without tolling and putting the costs of this project on the backs of motorists,” said Del Jared Solomon, D-Montgomery. “What is particularly galling is that in the governor’s own press statement put out last Friday he is now publicly admitting that he will go to the government and ask for money. So despite claims that this would never cost taxpayers a dollar, it would only be on the users on the road himself, he is publicly admitting that he’s going to need the federal government to step up and put taxpayer dollars in this project to get it completed.”

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. At the end of the contract, the roads would revert back to the state.

Elrich and others, including Solomon, said a delay was warranted to understand changes made by the state in its nearly 30,000-page final environmental impact study. Originally, officials and the public had just 30 days to review and comment on the document.

“We were really pleased to see the Federal Highway Administration take the position that they did on Friday,” said Solomon. “There were just so many problems that were identified in the supplemental draft of the environmental impact statement this past fall. All of a sudden we see a document that comes out in June that has magically fixed many of these issues, and I think there were many valid questions raised.”

It is unclear how long the Federal Highway Administration’s delay would last. A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately respond to questions.

Solomon is also hoping it will be long enough to effectively push the project in front of a new governor.

“We should not be rushing into judgment on things when we have potentially a new administration coming in in several months that could potentially view this project very differently and will be, frankly, putting our county and community on the hook for funding and infrastructure for the next 50 to 100 years,” said Solomon.