Montgomery executives hope next governor takes new approach to toll lane project

The Capital Beltway near the Interstate 270 spur. Photo by Dave Dildine/WTOP.

Montgomery County leaders were never enthusiastic about Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to add variable-price toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270.

Now, with Hogan slated to step down from the State House in January — and many elements of the plan have yet to be worked out — county officials are growing optimistic that Maryland’s next governor will take office with the power to rule. steer congestion relief efforts in a new direction.

Local elected officials have reason to hope.

Consider:

The international consortium that won a potentially lucrative contract to design the toll lanes exactly a year ago still doesn’t have a construction company to build them.

Accelerate Maryland Partners, a company run by Australian toll road operator Transurban, has lost its original construction partner, Archer Western, for reasons that have never been made public. The consortium began looking for a new road builder weeks after winning the $54 million design contract from the Maryland Department of Transportation, settle down quickly out of three potential suitors.

Although a year has passed, a spokesperson for Transurban confirmed last week that the search was continuing. She declined to comment on reports that AM Partners is in protracted negotiations with a potential contractor.

“Accelerate Maryland Partners’ procurement for a design-and-build contractor remains active, so I cannot confirm a selection,” she said, “but we hope to conclude this process shortly.”

hogan boasted that its toll road project is one of the “largest in the world”. The failure to attract a new construction contractor fueled suspicions that AM Partners used unrealistic profit margins to boost its procurement score.

These suspicions are at the heart of a protest against the bid filed by a company that lost to AM Partners. “The basis of the protest against the bid is that they won the contract with a low bid when they had no construction contractor, claiming that the [eventual] the construction contractor would work for small profits,” said Ben Ross, head of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition.

“A year later, they haven’t found any. We don’t know for sure if it’s because of the price, but what else would it be? »

When Capital Express Mobility Partners (CEMP), a consortium made up of a large group of Spanish companies, challenged MDOT’s decision to go with AM Partners, the agency expressed confidence in its appeals process. offers.

Governor Larry Hogan (R) speaks with Transurban officials during an economic development breakfast in DC, September 9, 2021. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

CEMP won the first round of its legal battle with the state, in Montgomery County Circuit Court, a victory that forced the agency to conduct an internal procurement review. Unsurprisingly, MDOT reaffirmed its decision to go with AM Partners.

(A former Hogan staffer is now a top Transurban official, with a portfolio that includes securing the toll lane contract across the finish line before the governor leaves office. And Hogan included senior company officials on a trade mission to Australia.)

The second round of the CEMP-MDOT battle will play out in court this fall, when the losing bidder’s appeal will be heard by the Special Court of Appeal. The case has just been scheduled for November 22.

Toll lane advocates hoped the Federal Highway Administration would give the project an official go-ahead on Aug. 5. Two days before the agency’s “target date” for a decision, Transportation Secretary Jim Ports learned that a final decision had been postponed.

The delay prompted howls of protest — and threats of legal action — from Hogan. The Federal Highway Administration has given no reason not to issue a “record of decision” or a new target date. Because the bill is unpopular with the state’s majority Democratic congressional delegation, Hogan cannot look to lawmakers for help in speeding things up.

When the toll lane project faced potential repudiation from a regional transportation committee, then transportation secretary Greg Slater stepped in and struck a controversial deal with five council members of Montgomery County.

Due primarily to the County Term Limits Act, the council taking office in December is expected to have dramatically different views on toll lanes than the current panel. Based on their responses to candidate questionnaires, Ross estimates that seven of the 11 board members will lean against the project in its current form, a potentially significant change if the next board has the ear of the new governor.

Hogan’s successor is unlikely to work with the project in its current form. If former Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz (right) had secured her party’s gubernatorial nomination, Hogan probably wouldn’t need to keep his foot on the accelerator as much. But she lost the GOP primary to state Del’s first term. Dan Cox (Frederick).

Neither Cox nor Wes Moore, the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, are fans of Hogan’s public-private partnership approach to relieving traffic. In one of his first post-primary interviews, Moore told WAMU he would like to see “a new type of proposal”.

“It seems likely that responsibility for this project will fall to the next governor,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), a longtime critic. “I am encouraged by some of the comments that have already been made by candidate Moore.”

“We shouldn’t be rushing to judge things when we potentially have a new administration coming in, several months from now, who will see this project very differently,” Del said. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), another critic of the project.

Elrich said it would be “really helpful to be able to work with someone who is focused on a solution to the traffic problem rather than a P3.”

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