MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — A proposal to expand the American Legion Bridge, parts of the Capital Beltway and I-270 as far as its connection with the ICC in Gaithersburg by constructing privatized toll lanes got a green light from Maryland's Board of Public Works.
The Board voted two to one in favor of allocating $50 million to allow a construction consortium led by toll road developer Transurban to move ahead with planning and preliminary engineering of the project which is Phase 1 of a much larger plan that has not been approved.
The vote clears the way for Transurban to proceed with a plan to finance, construct and operate what is projected to be up to a $7 billion project to widen the roadway, and then recover its costs by collecting tolls and profits for decades to come.
The three-member Board of Public Works in Maryland is made up of the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer of the state. Panel approval is needed for all major state expenditures and contracts.
State Comptroller Peter Franchot voted with Gov. Larry Hogan in favor of the project, releasing the following statement regarding the new development:
“Today, I reconfirmed the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) will fulfill the commitments I secured, which include guarantees that:
No construction award will be presented to the Board next year until the completion of all federal, state and local environmental impact studies and permits required;
No homes will be taken before the construction contract is awarded;
A portion of the toll revenue be directly invested into local transit programs for Montgomery and Frederick counties, and;
Carpools and buses will be able to use the express toll lanes for free. In addition, MDOT completed a feasibility study of a monorail system for the I-270 corridor, which was a commitment made to the Board in January 2020."
Hogan called the vote a "great victory for Marylanders," promising traffic relief on the Beltway, job creation and environmental benefits for the region.
Treasurer Nancy Kopp was opposed, citing environmental, global warming and financial concerns, noting that a fully complete Environmental Impact Statement had not been submitted.
Franchot, who is a Democratic candidate to succeed Hogan, voted yes after seeking assurances from Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater that there would be protections for labor unions, the environment and public transportation amenities in any future contract with Transurban.
"This guarantees good-paying jobs for union workers, minority-owned, women-owned, disadvantaged, and small business owners, as well as non-union shops," Franchot said. "Each of them will have a seat at this very large table.”
Political leaders in Montgomery County recently united to oppose the toll project, frequently criticizing it as a scheme to create "Lexus lanes" that would serve only those motorists with an ability to pay, while the majority continued to sit in heavy traffic.
The average toll for a 12-mile trip is projected to cost $3.95, Slater testified.
But peak rate tolling could drive the cost of a single trip up to $50 to drive the entire route, according to a proposal available for public comment from the Maryland Transportation Authority.
In testimony before the vote, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich predicted that the toll project would result in a major choke point at the northern terminus where the toll lanes would intersect with the ICC.
Elrich says he favors publically financed, reversible, toll-free, commuter lanes that would extend all the way to I-70 in Frederick.