The Beltway at the American Legion Bridge crossing over the Potomac River. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Next week's Board of Public Works (BPW) vote on Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's proposal to add four privately-financed toll lanes on I-495 and I-270 has been delayed. Residents and others including the DC Council have raised a variety of concerns about the project, which would likely encourage more driving, contribute to global warming emissions, and require some homes and businesses to be razed.

In December 2018, the Maryland Department of Transportation submitted a “pre-solicitation report” to the BPW seeking approval to pursue a public-private partnership (P3) to finance, build, and operate the lanes, supposedly to address congestion. The subsequent winter session of the Maryland state legislature yielded several efforts by the Montgomery and Prince George's County delegations to slow down the project, none of which were successful.

The BPW was scheduled to vote on May 8, 2019 on whether to approve the P3 designation for this project. The BPW consists of Comptroller Peter Franchot (elected), Treasurer Nancy Kopp (appointed by legislature), and the governor, Larry Hogan. A majority vote by the BPW is needed to approve the P3 designation.

At the December 2018 BPW meeting, Nancy Kopp did not vote to approve a $90 million contract for studying the planning, final design, and construction of the highways, citing concerns about “a confusing process” and lack of detailed information on the contract. However, the vote was placed on the agenda for the May 8 meeting despite longstanding, known travel plans that prevent would Kopp from attending the meeting and voting. State legislature Delelegate David Moon organized a group letter from 40 members of the two chambers of the legislature objecting to this, and the discussion and vote have been removed from the agenda as of this morning, May 3.

Looking forward, if the Board of Public Works approves the designation of the plan as a P3, it would allow MDOT to issue a Request for Qualification (RFQ) to begin the process of selecting vendors for the project before a draft Environmental Impact Statement is completed (the draft EIS is expected this winter Dec 2019/Jan-Feb 2020). It would also lock in a transportation model that would leave transit completely out of the picture.

What do you think about Hogan's plan?

On April 16, I appeared on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show to discuss the proposal, along with project proponents and Washington Post reporter Bob McCartney. On the show, I emphasized concern about the potential risk to US taxpayers and particularly Maryland residents under the P3 model.

There is no P3 model that does not involve risk to the public sector. A concerning 40% of US transportation P3s have been restructured, primarily to reallocate risk from the private sector to the public sector. Streetsblog's detailed forensic accounting of the Indiana Toll Road explored how investors can make money by losing money through “Hydra like” financial structures.

I also questioned some of the extremely optimistic modeling and assumptions of the Hogan proposal, pointing out that our own Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Long-Range Plan Task Force had explored 10 scenarios for reducing congestion in the region (and also looked at other goals), and that two other alternatives did more to reduce congestion than priced-lane highway widening.

Screenshot from page viii of the Executive Summary of the Report on Phase II of the TPB Long-Range Plan Task Force.

Listeners who called into the show also asked questions about environmental impacts and how this fits into Maryland's climate change strategy. However, we received so many calls that most people did not get a chance to participate. What questions or comments do you have about the project?

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.