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Efforts to revive a beleaguered highway project in Montgomery County took a step forward on Tuesday, when Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner appointed herself to a regional panel that plays a key role in transportation decisions.
The Frederick County Council confirmed Gardner’s nomination of herself to the National Capital Region’s Transportation Planning Board by a 6-0 vote, with one abstention.
Gardner will replace Frederick County Council Member Kai Hagen, a fellow Democrat.
At a June 16 meeting of the TPB, Hagen sided with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) on a resolution to remove the proposed widening of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway from a list of projects to be included in a crucial federal air quality analysis. The amendment was adopted on vote of 9.2 to 5.7, under the planning board’s “weighted” voting system.
The project is a top priority of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). It is supported by business interests and many motorists, particularly those who have to travel long distances on I-270 toward Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.
But the proposed “public-private partnership” arrangement that the governor unveiled in 2017 has generated intense opposition in Montgomery and Prince George’s, and from environmentalists.
Gardner testified before the Council just prior to the vote, and she acknowledged that removing Hagen, an outspoken environmental and social justice advocate, from the TPB was “unusual.”
But she said she was worried that if the privately-financed project dies, the state will face a revenue shortfall — and that the long-planned widening of U.S. 15 and improvements to MD 85 (Buckeystown Pike) in Frederick County could be “downgraded” as a result.
Deputy Maryland Transportation Secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr. warned local officials after the TPB vote that the state could be forced to chop $6 billion in D.C.-area traffic projects, though Transportation Secretary Greg Slater acknowledged to state lawmakers last week that the true impact was closer to $1.5 billion.
Josh Tulkin, head for the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said it is “entirely inappropriate for MDOT to be threatening local jurisdictions.”
Hagen, who abstained from the vote to put Gardner on the TPB, defended his opposition to the project. He said the variably-priced “express toll lanes” are “a business model that depends on [non-toll] lanes staying congested.”
“I think it is the worst plan that’s been discussed from both a climate and an equity point of view,” he added.
Since the TPB vote to strike the I-495/I-270 project from the air quality analysis, backers have been scrambling to engineer a reconsideration at the panel’s July meeting.
Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), a supporter of the highway project, was appointed to the panel by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City). And project supporters have been trying to sway those who backed Elrich’s amendment.
In an interview late Tuesday, Gardner said there was no overt pressure from state officials.
“Tonight’s vote was really about having a Council member vote their personal opinion, rather than the opinion of the council, and that became an issue with both the Council and myself,” she said.
Gardner said she spoke with Hagen twice in the lead-up to the June 16 vote and told him “if a vote like this comes up, you should abstain, because the council hasn’t taken a position.”
Prince George’s Officials Signal Intent to Flip
The Frederick vote is one of multiple apparent victories for the governor.
In a June 24 letter to the TPB, Terry Bellamy, the director of Public Works and Transportation for Prince George’s County, urged the panel to reconsider its vote.
“Analysis from MDOT warrants [the board] to reconsider their vote on Gov. Hogan’s Traffic Relief Plan,” he wrote. Bellamy attended the June 16 meeting as a designee of County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and he cast her vote in favor of Elrich’s amendment.
Bellamy referenced the Lewis letter in explaining the county’s sudden reversal.
“In the correspondence, Mr. Lewis shared new information that had not been made available until now,” he wrote. “We would have appreciated the full picture presented at or leading up to the June 16 TPB meeting.”
Alsobrooks did not respond to a text message on Tuesday evening.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen, the chairman of the TPB, called the Hogan administration’s moves to sway votes “a maximum pressure campaign at work.”
“We should get a better lay of the land in the next week or so,” he added.
Some opponents of the I-495/I-270 project expect Hogan and other supporters to succeed should the matter come to a re-vote at the panel’s July 21 meeting, though there are lingering questions about the impact of a June 30 deadline for projects to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Transportation consultant Gary V. Hodge, a former member of the Charles County Board of Commissioners and a project opponent, said he was not ready to concede.
“I think it’s too close to call,” Hodge said. “These heavy-handed tactics may turn some [votes], but I’m not ready to predict the outcome yet.”