Bill would prevent toll roads without county approval

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Image via Wikimedia Commons.

By David Jahng
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS—Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to reduce traffic on I-270, the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway by adding private lanes could be further delayed if state legislation requiring local approval is passed.

All state agencies, including the Maryland Transportation Authority, would need approval from county governments before building toll roads under the House and Senate legislation working its way through the General Assembly.

Hogan proposed a $9 billion public-private partnership plan to create two new toll lanes—or toll lanes combined with one of 15 alternatives—to reduce congestion. The State Highway Administration earlier this month dropped eight of those alternatives from its recommendations.

The remaining seven alternatives all include Express or High Occupancy Toll lanes, except for a “No Build” option.

Current law dictates any state agency must get approval from affected governments in Eastern Shore counties before constructing toll roadways or toll bridges.

House Bill 102, sponsored by Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore), which has an identical copy proposed in the Senate, would expand that law to all counties in Maryland. A committee is scheduled to hear Senate Bill 442, sponsored by William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery County), on Wednesday.

The financial impact on the state from possible construction delays cannot be estimated, as counties may or may not authorize projects, according to government documents.

However, opponents said the legislation is overreaching and would ultimately cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year the project is delayed.

County governments should have a stake, but not a veto in final decisions, as it is the state’s job to address the interstate highway systems, said Richard Parsons, vice chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.

“Delay tactics” from legislators would cost up to $300 million each year, said Parsons.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said in January that House Bill 91, which would require beltway expansion to wait an additional year until an environmental report was completed, would cost the state’s private road-building partner as much as $300 million.

Neither that bill nor the legislation requiring local approval had been voted out of committee and sent to the House floor.

The plan for I-270 and the Capital Beltway is expected to be completed at no net cost to the state, as private developers would design, build, finance, operate and maintain the new toll lanes on both roads, according to a legislative analysis.

House Bill 102 comes as a reaction to the exclusion of local governments from the policy process of Hogan’s beltway expansion plan, Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery County), chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, told Capital News Service.

Local and state governments need to agree, especially when the state wants to charge people to drive on a road, said Lierman.

“My fear is that … the expansion of lanes will do nothing to end gridlock, and will increase air pollution all over our state,” said Lierman.

“In other states, these so-called Lexus Lanes have a track record for producing surprise taxpayer costs,” Brad German, co chair of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion said in a written statement.

Tolls built on the privately owned portion of I-66 in Virginia, also a public-private partnership project, hit a high of $46.75 last year.

Statewide costs totaled $2 billion in 2015 from delays and wasted fuel and emissions, according to the State Highway Administration.

The highway expansion plan would relieve }three of the most congested highways in the state,” Rahn said in a press release.

Metropolitan areas in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia had some of the longest average one-way commutes in the nation, according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report.

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