Former Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) says it’s time for the leading combatants in the debate over the proposed widening of Interstates 270 and 495 to end their public bickering and cut a deal.
In an interview with Maryland Matters, the former three-term-executive said his successor, Marc B. Elrich (D), and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) need to resolve their differences over how best to provide congestion relief for motorists who live in — and travel through — the state’s largest county.
“I would take them both, put them in a room, and throw away the keys — and say ‘you’re not coming out of here until you resolve this,’” Leggett said.
Hogan unveiled his plan to add four privately-financed “express toll lanes” to portions of the Beltway and I-270 in 2017.
Elrich, who was elected county executive after a dozen years on the county council, has pressed for changes since soon after taking office in 2018.
Along with Council President Tom Hucker (D), he urged the state to abandon plans to widen the Beltway between the I-270 spurs and the Prince George’s County border, due to space constraints.
And Elrich pressed the state to prioritize the reconstruction of the American Legion Bridge — an aging Potomac River crossing that slows commuters morning and evening.
He continues to urge the state to scale back its plan for I-270, installing a pair of “reversible” lanes rather than adding four.
The Maryland Department of Transportation has made multiple changes to Hogan’s original plan to accommodate pleas from local leaders and other critics.
Despite the adjustments, top county leaders and the state remain unable to strike a deal on the multi-billion dollar project. (County planners and the National Capital Planning Commission also oppose Hogan’s plan.)
Much of the opposition flows from Hogan’s insistence that the state use private funding to expand the two highways. The governor maintains there is no alternative, but critics contend that “managed lanes” disproportionately benefit upper-income commuters.
Leggett called it “irresponsible” to reject so-called “public-private partnerships” out of hand, “because you don’t have the bandwidth, taxes and otherwise, given all the projects around the state, to — within reason — fulfill all the other projects that we have.”
The former executive said the lengthy back-and-forth between locals and the state has hurt the pursuit of a compromise.
“When you’ve lost that trust, it’s hard to get back to the table,” he said. “That’s why I’d put ‘em in a room and throw away the key.”
On Sunday, Elrich expressed optimism that he and Transportation Secretary Greg Slater will be able to come to terms.
He added that soon after the capital region’s Transportation Planning Board voted to remove the I-495/I-270 project from a list of approved projects, Slater contacted him.
“Shortly after the vote, Sec. Slater reached out and asked if we could talk and I said yes,” Elrich texted. “We’ve been trying to work with the state since the beginning and continue to hope we can work something out.”
Some backers of the governor’s plan accuse Montgomery’s top officials of ‘moving the goalposts,’ though most are unwilling to do so on the record.
After the TPB vote, Hogan’s communications director said the county executive is not negotiating in good faith.
“I don’t think it’s just moving the goal posts. I think it’s moving the stadium at this point,” spokesman Michael Ricci said. “I believe we’re approaching the point where he’s dealing in bad faith.”
Leggett, who was appointed by Hogan to serve on the University of Maryland Board of Regents in 2019, said the governor deserves credit for making congestion relief in the D.C. area a priority.
But he also said MDOT should have reached out to people who live near the Beltway and I-270 sooner, to work through concerns about what Hogan’s plan would mean for their homes and neighborhoods, and the environment.
“There have been some mistakes on both sides,” he said.
Despite the bad blood and the “elongated” process, Leggett still thinks a compromise is there to be had.
“Given what we see that’s on the table, [and] what local officials — most of them — have said, I think there’s a reasonable compromise to this thing,” he said.
“You know my leadership style. I don’t walk away from anything,” he added. “I believe there is a deal out there that can be made. And I’m optimistic that when we get the parties together and build that trust, we’re going to get a deal.”