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The problem with Hogan’s signature transportation project

The project is complex, with many moving parts, vast in scope, and costly. I’m referring to the proposal to alleviate traffic congestion in the Washington suburbs by replacing the aging American Legion bridge spanning the Potomac River and adding toll lanes on sections of the Capital Beltway and a major highway corridor through Montgomery County.

The Interstate 495/Interstate 270toll lanes project is the signature highway expansion proposed back in 2017 by Gov. Larry Hogan and his former transportation secretary, Pete Rahm.

These roadways are to be designed, built and operated by a private contractor over a 50-year period, with a contract valued upwards of $5 billion. Under a public-private partnership or P3 project, the contractor would retain most of the toll revenues and construct the new facilities on its own account.

Because of the complexity of this infrastructure investment, it should not surprise us that the selected private contractor, Accelerate Maryland Partners, has requested additional time to finalize its contract, extending its timeline to March 2023. As a result, a final signoff on the project cannot come about until after a new Maryland  gubernatorial administration is in office.

This poses a major challenge for this project to move forward. There is general consensus regarding the urgency of replacing the Potomac crossing. However, Gov.-elect Wes Moore has raised serious questions about the toll road component of this P3 project. He has indicated that alternative solutions for reducing traffic congestion, including the use of more mass transit, implementing reversable lanes, and other measures would have to be considered.

He would also like to receive more input from the local governments affected by the planned roads. Comptroller-elect Brooke Lierman has also expressed her skepticism about the proposal. Those two newly elected officials would represent two of the three votes on Maryland’s Board of Public Works, responsible for approving state contracts.  The third member of the board is expected to be returning state Treasurer Dereck E. Davis.

Road Wars II

In my October column dealing with the Baltimore “road wars” of the 1960s and 1970s, I suggested that those wars were not over. A new front has been active in the Washington region for years, with a specific focus on the proposed toll lanes.

Some are concerned with the environmental damage that might result from adding two new lanes in each direction. Others deride the so-called “Lexus lanes” allowing higher-income drivers to buy their way out of traffic congestion.

While some may look on these activities as obstructionism, others readily welcome them as being mindful of community concerns otherwise neglected.

One of the more active of the current road warriors is Ben Ross, who has served as head of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and has for years researched and written about transportation and land use. His 2014 book, “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism”, was described as “a  highly personal account of a larger journey that we are embarked on as a nation — from sprawl to walkable communities, from anoxic, sterile neighborhoods to vibrant, transit-served urban areas that are the wellspring of innovation, economic development and cultural richness,” by John Porcari, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation who also had served as MDOT secretary.

In July of this year Ross challenged the traffic forecasts used in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) submitted to USDOT in support of the I-495/I-270 project. In fact, he submitted a letter to USDOT alleging “numerous anomalies” that appear to be of questionable origin and he urged the federal officials to commission an independent review to rule out “scientific fraud.”

The Federal Highway Administration did, in fact, submit the issue to its research arm, the Volpe Center located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to Ross, the “Volpe Center confirms our letter’s contention that the results presented in the FEIS were generated by adjusting intermediate or final model outputs by hand. Volpe stated that it ‘could not assess the plausibility or validity of these adjustments’.”

Earlier this year, I tried to determine from both Maryland officials and from the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments transportation planning staff what metrics are being used to establish that the P3 plan will actually result in reduced traffic congestion. I did not have success.

I think the Maryland public deserves much more clarity on this matter before embarking on such a monumental endeavor.

Joe Nathanson is the retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. Since 2001, he has written a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at [email protected]