ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Board of Public Works (BPW) voted to move forward with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration’s (MDOT SHA) Managed Lanes Study, which will expand Interstate highways 495 and 270, with amendments.
However, the Prince George’s County Council is still not on board with the plan.
The BPW, which consists of Governor Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp, voted on the project on June 5. Hogan and Franchot voted in favor of the plan, Kopp voted against it.
“This transformative project that we are voting on today is about finally taking the first step to move forward and to finally take action on an issue that unfortunately elected officials have literally ignored for decades,” Hogan said.
The vote the BPW was initially supposed to be making was only to approve the MDOT SHA’s request to approve the Public-Private Partnership (P3) model the project would operate under and it would also approve a competitive solicitation method for selecting a developer for every phase of the project resulting in multiple P3 agreements.
SHA Administrator Greg Slater emphasized that at this point, the organization was only requesting that project be allowed to move forward with the next step and “start an innovative dialogue” to achieve a solution. Much needed environmental impact studies will follow the vote.
Before taking an official vote, Hogan introduced an amendment to the project in the hopes of appeasing those opposed to it which would rearrange the phases until completion.
“The traffic relief plan has been proposed as a long-term three-phase plan, and this hearing today is about whether we approve the big picture designation of the P3…There is still plenty of time to take any considerations,” Hogan said.
Originally, the first phase of the project was supposed to be the alleviation of the traffic congestion on the capital beltway from the Potomac River all the way through Montgomery County to I-95 in Prince George’s County, followed by capacity improvements for I-270 and then improvements to the beltway Prince George’s County all the way to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
All phases are still intended to be completed.
However, since the first phase has caused the strongest opposition, Hogan said, his amendment makes moving forward with I-270 congestion relief phase one, followed by work on the Montgomery County portion I-495 as phase two and phase three remains as work on the Prince George’s County portion of the beltway.
“I think it’s a chance for all of us to do what’s been overdue for a long time, which is come up with the best solutions,” said Franchot, who added four amendments of his own before voting for the project.
One of Franchot’s amendments was to have no acquisition of private property before BPW approval. Also, provisions for mass transit bus access on the managed toll lanes with 10 percent of all state net total proceeds to go to are also to go to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for regional transit services once the private developer has been reimbursed and a feasibility study for a monorail from Shady Grove to Frederick County.
Kopp, who remained skeptical throughout the meeting, said she appreciates Hogan and Franchot’s proposals and understands the unanimous consensus that something must be done about congestion, but chose not to approve the agenda item.
“I have been concerned all along about this huge project and voting on it without being able to see any of the background numbers, of the origin-destination numbers, of the numbers that go behind the statements that it’s going to improve the environment,” she said, adding that more transparency and discussion would benefit everyone in the long run.
Like Kopp, the county council has had a lot of reservations about moving forward with this project. In the past they have participated in public hearings, collectively wrote letters to the MDOT SHA, passed a resolution asking for more oversight of the project and worked together with Montgomery County officials to come up with alternatives.
“We’ve been engaged, and we did do the resolution, putting out our request for financial analysis, about whether or not this benefits not only the state of Maryland but, obviously, those who are impacted directly,” County Council Chair Todd Turner said.
“We also requested that all of the environmental impact statements be done before you move forward so we know what the expectations would be before going forward with an actual contract with a private partner as part of this. And the third thing was most important, making sure we’re engaged as part of the process.”
During a meeting on June 10, the council received a briefing on the project as a whole and the BPW vote in particular from Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) Principal Counsel Debra Borden and Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and the Environment Committee Director J. Kenneth Battle.
During Borden’s presentation, she denoted some points of concerns that the M-NCPPC has been trying to reconcile with the MDOT SHA.
The M-NCPPC feels that the environmental impact will be much greater than suggested and they worry about the lack of public transit options. The lack of access points to important county areas such as Arena Drive and the Prince George’s County Hospital Center and the fact that the current plan stops just south of MD 5 before reaching the Woodrow Wilson Bridge could cause more traffic in that area, Borden said.
At the meeting, the council raised a lot of questions, many of which Borden and Battle said they had not received any information on from MDOT SHA.
These questions included how the toll proceeds would be divided amongst both Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and when this would take place, what would be the focus areas of the regional transit, how much park land would be affected and whether the project will ever get to phase three in the first place.
“Today actually just lends even more why I think this has not been well-thought out. I feel like we’ve sort of left any sign of rational policymaking at the door somewhere,” said Councilmember Dannielle Glaros. She went on to say it sounds like the BPW vote was “completely done on the fly” and the process needs to be extended further.
Councilmember Mel Franklin called the situation a “catch 22” because the council can either express their desire to have phase three, which has more of a direct impact on the county, moved up and sound like they support the project, or express opposition which will keep the phase at the end.
Although the BPW addressed some issues the county council raised with their vote, there are still outstanding questions the council needs answers to, Turner said.
“We need to engage our partners both at the federal and state level as we continue to monitor this process as part of that and we’ll try to see if we can concur, perhaps, as we tried to do in our previous letter with some of the issues the commission raised.”