As transport panel prepares for vote, critics mock MDOT claims

Under intense pressure from the Hogan administration, an influential regional transportation council is set to relaunch a plan to expand portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County.

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Under intense pressure from the Hogan administration, an influential regional transportation council is set to relaunch a plan to expand portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County.

Last month, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Council scrapped plans for a federal air quality scan in a surprise vote, a potentially crippling setback for one of the major Priorities of Governor Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.

The amendment was proposed by Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), one of the main critics of the plan to add “express toll lanes” to both highways – and the vote appeared catch the Maryland Department of Transportation off guard.

Since then, Hogan (R) and transportation officials in Maryland and Virginia have launched an aggressive campaign to hold a vote.

The MDOT has distributed several lists of road and transit improvements that the agency says will have to be scrapped if the TPB fails to tip over, prompting snorts of derision from critics of the project.

In addition, supporters of the $ 3 billion “public-private partnership”, which also includes the reconstruction and widening of the American Legion Bridge, have decided to fill vacancies on the panel.

And Hogan has used his political action committee to publicly accuse critics of the project of engaging in “partisan” politics and appeasing “pro-trafficking activists.”

The campaign seems to be bearing fruit.

The TPB is meeting on Wednesday and the proposal to restore the Hogan project to the capital region air quality compliance analysis is on the agenda.

There will be at least three new faces when the panel meets: Frederick County Director Jan Gardner (D), who replaces County Council member Kai Hagen (D), a vocal critic of the project who was dismissed. of office shortly after the vote on June 16; State Senator Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who supports Hogan’s push to widen the two highways; and Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun). King and Reid both hold vacant positions.

The transportation council is made up of more than two dozen jurisdictions in the National Capital Region and uses a “weighted” voting system, so even insiders aren’t sure whether Hogan and his state government allies de Virginie and the business world will win.

In interviews on Monday, several critics of the project strongly criticized the threats made by the MDOT.

They said the agency’s list of five projects that would be cut from the budget – to make up for the loss of private funding for the I-495 / I-270 plan – is currently unfunded in the Consolidated Transportation Plan. the state, Maryland’s six- year rolling budget for capital spending.

“If you look at Hogan’s budget – and previous budgets – he’s not funding them [already]Said Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery). “There are five projects listed and each of them, if you look at the CTP, costs zero dollars for the current year and zero dollars for the next five years. “

A spokesperson for Hogan declined to comment.

On Monday, the State Highway Administration released data showing that traffic in parts of the state – including the American Legion Bridge – is slightly above 2019 levels.

“Vacation travel over the July 4 weekend exceeding 2019 levels is a significant milestone signaling our state’s strong recovery from the pandemic,” Hogan said in a statement.

“Traffic volumes are exceeding pre-pandemic levels statewide, including at the American Legion Bridge, making the need for our traffic relief plan more urgent than ever.”

Elrich dismissed the list of projects supposed to be on the chopping block, calling it a “pretty empty threat.”

“It doesn’t solve anything. There is no money saved here that is going to be diverted to the bridge, ”said the executive.

“The governor’s whole campaign has been about spitting out poison and half-truths – actually not truths at all – and hoping people buy it because it’s from him,” he added. “There is no validity in this.”

The governor’s political action committee, Change Maryland, ran ads on Facebook accusing Elrich, Korman and Montgomery County Council Chairman Tom Hucker (R) of taking action that would keep commuters “stuck in. overwhelming traffic ”.

“Montgomery County politicians Marc Elrich, Marc Korman and Tom Hucker aren’t just blocking a new American Legion bridge and reducing traffic jams on I-270 and I-495,” read an announcement. “As part of Marc Elrich’s plan, almost all transportation projects in the National Capital Region will be killed, including 5 vital traffic solutions right here in Montgomery County. “

A version of the announcement circulated in Prince George’s claimed that the TPB vote could kill six “traffic solutions” as well as the construction of the Beltway interchange at Greenbelt tube station, a project that is not funded in the latter. state budget.

“Don’t let the politicians in Montgomery County hold the people of Prince George – who are stuck in soul-crushing trafficking – hostage to appease a small group of pro-trafficking activists,” the text reads.

The Sierra Club sent a cease and desist order to Change Maryland, accusing the PAC of “inappropriate and misleading use of the Sierra Club name.” The environmental organization also wants Facebook to remove the ads on the grounds that they represent “disinformation” and “fake news”.

Although a top aide to the Prince George County executive, Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), called for a vote in a June 24 letter to the TPB, it was not clear on Monday how she got there. ‘intention to vote on Wednesday.

Korman called the letter from Director of Transportation Terry Bellamy “a bit distressing, perhaps showing a lack of understanding of what the governor is threatening.”

“I hope people who ‘return’ are doing it for the right reasons and not because they buy into the false narrative,” he said. “People should vote on what they see as the merits of the project and not on some completely false story that is being broadcast.”

Kopp’s offer for study funds declined

Under Maryland’s Public-Private Partnership (P3) Act, state tax officials – the comptroller, treasurer, and certain members of the General Assembly – have 30 days to review P3 agreements after they are signed. .

In a July 9 letter to General Assembly leaders, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) said her staff did not have the bandwidth to conduct a thorough review of the “pre-development” contract of $ 54 million from MDOT for project I-270/495 with Accelerate Maryland. Partners, a consortium led by Australian firms Transurban and Macquarie Capital.

Kopp requested $ 100,000 from the State Department of Budget and Management to contract with external experts for the review, but his request was rejected.

The analysis that Kopp’s team carried out concluded that while “there are benefits” to the “gradual progression” of MDOT [P3] delivery model approach could make it difficult to keep costs competitive ‘in later stages of the project.

“[Future agreements] would include the actual construction and operation of the facilities making up the project, making their cost, complexity and risk far greater than anything included in the pre-development agreement, she wrote.

“However, information on these costs, complexities and risks will not be available until [this] The deal is already approved, the pre-development work is complete, ”and further deals are under consideration, she wrote.

Kopp also said it is not clear whether Hogan’s preferred method of financing – a PPP – is really a better deal for taxpayers in the early stages of the project than traditional financing, as the analysis did not not been made.

“Without an analysis directly comparing the costs and risks associated with PPP delivery to a comparable project using public sector delivery, there is no way for the state to make an informed choice between the two alternatives,” she concluded.

“MDOT and [the concessionaire] intend to perform their own separate value-for-money analyzes as part of the pre-development phase, but only after [this] The agreement would have already been approved, ”added the treasurer.

Michael Ricci, the governor’s spokesperson, defended the decision to deny the treasurer’s request for funding.

“It is DBM’s position that the treasurer’s office, as custodian of state resources, should be able to find the $ 100,000 in its $ 6.7 million budget,” he said. – he writes in an email, noting that the treasurer’s office did not spend $ 500,000 from its budget in fiscal 2020.

Ben Ross, head of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and one of the main opponents of the Hogan project, called the Department of Budget and Management’s decision “utterly outrageous.”

“They say they want to run the state like a business,” he said. “What company would enter into a deal funded by $ 6 billion bonds without its bond lawyer reviewing it?” “

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