Ahead of key votes, Franchot weighs policy and politics on Hogan highway plan

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When the Board of Public Works meets on Wednesday, it will cast two votes on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to add variably-priced toll lanes to portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.

The three-person board is being asked to approve a “predevelopment” contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners (AMP), a consortium comprised of the international toll-road operator Transurban and others.

The contract, if approved, will allow the firm to proceed with design and engineering work on the first leg of the governor’s plan: what the agency now calls Phase 1 South, from the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge, along Interstate 495 and up I-270 to Interstate 370.

The second item on the board’s agenda would establish a one-dollar-a-year lease arrangement, lasting 60 years, between the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA). This would allow for the eventual extension of privately-financed toll lanes between the bridge and Interstate 70 in Frederick, a multibillion project that isn’t expected to come before the BPW until next year.

The swing vote on both of this week’s agenda items is expected to be Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D).

In addition to being the state’s four-term tax collector, he is also a consensus top-tier candidate in the 2022 race for governor, a contest that will likely transition to a more intense phase when the state’s political leaders gather in Ocean City in two weeks for the Maryland Association of Counties’ annual conference.

Franchot’s office, which typically does not comment on the comptroller’s thinking about upcoming votes, said he “is reviewing all of the details of the project and the communication our office is receiving from the public.”

Political observers — including people who have spoken privately with Franchot in recent days — agree on one thing: the upcoming votes will require him to wade through a complex set of issues.

His deliberations run along parallel tracks — the well-documented merits and criticisms of the project, which have dominated public debate for years, and the political considerations, which haven’t received nearly as much attention.

Those who know Franchot, a wily political survivor who has served since the mid-1980s, say he is giving serious weight to both sets of issues.

The fact that the item has been posted on the BPW agenda leads many observers to conclude that he is inclined to support the governor.

If he had strong reservations, or had decided to vote “no,” this analysis goes, the comptroller’s staff would have conveyed his misgivings to the governor’s team. (Because the board consists of just three members — Hogan, Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) — meetings tend to be collegial, even when the trio disagree. They are not prone to blindsiding one another with last-minute shenanigans.)

The unknown is whether Franchot will arrive at Wednesday’s meeting with a list of amendments — conditions to which Hogan and MDOT must agree to win the comptroller’s approval.

This is the strategy Franchot used before a big vote in 2019.

It worked. The governor accepted a broad range of changes that Franchot proposed.

One of them involved Franchot’s insistence that the new High Occupancy Toll lanes on I-495 and I-270 be built “by union workers earning union wages.”

In February, more than a year before the 2022 gubernatorial primary, Franchot was rewarded for his advocacy when he scooped up the endorsement of the mid-Atlantic Region of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).

It was the first major endorsement of his campaign.

LIUNA represents more than 3,000 workers in Maryland and about 40,000 in the mid-Atlantic region.

At the time, union official Dennis L. Martire said workers would “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him throughout this critical campaign.”

“Over his 14 years as comptroller, Peter Franchot has proven that he is not one to shy away from fighting for Maryland’s working families,” Martire added. “He is a man of his word, and he has already committed to expanding pathways to the middle class for working Marylanders. We are proud to endorse him for governor.”

Whether Franchot seeks a Project Labor Agreement — a project-specific collective bargaining agreement with union workers — for the 495/270 project won’t be known until Wednesday. Though common on publicly-funded projects, they are rare on projects the private sector is financing.

To some observers, a PLA could be a difficult pill for Hogan, a potential 2024 presidential hopeful, to swallow.

But a project advocate with long-standing ties to the business community, noting the tight timeline MDOT is working under, said on Monday: “I just don’t see it being an issue.”

Environmentalists have been united in their opposition to the project, and they will be disappointed (though not surprised) if Franchot votes with Hogan. The same holds true for people who own homes near the two roads.

While opponents of the project have been more vocal, polls show that public support for some version of Hogan’s plan remains solid — although one former statewide official predicted that the naysayers will be more likely to base future votes on Wednesday’s outcome than supporters.

In a recent interview, the governor predicted victory come Wednesday.

“I think it’s going to be successful,” he told Maryland Matters. “Hopefully politics won’t enter into it. But even if you’re going to make decisions solely based on politics, you would have to vote for this, because it’s what an overwhelming majority are in favor of.”

While all signs point to Franchot siding with Hogan, voting to advance the project is not without risk.

He will be open to criticism that he backed a project that the treasurer’s office wasn’t able to properly vet due to inadequate staffing — and in the face of the state’s rejection of her request for $100,000 to take a fine-toothed comb to the financing scheme.

Critics will contend that MDOT has purposely deferred a required “value for money” study — intended to compare “P3”-style private financing with traditional public financing — until after the Board of Public Works votes on the predevelopment contract.

“He calls himself a fiscal watchdog,” said Sen. Cheryl K. Kagan (D-Montgomery). “This is the time when he must … ask the hard questions.”

Voters and primary foes are also likely to note that Hogan is bringing contracts to a vote before a federally required environmental analysis has been completed.

In addition, there is the very real potential that the entire project will be bogged down by litigation initiated by a bidder who lost to AMP. (The consortium declined to appear before two General Assembly committees in June, citing the protest.)

Kagan said many opponents of Hogan’s plan expect Franchot to offer a “fig leaf” to justify his support for it.

“I would not want to be the comptroller on this vote,” said former governor Parris N. Glendening (D). “Peter is trying to be in the middle of the road on this issue, and we all know the only thing you see in the middle of the road is roadkill.”

With the vote now just a day away, supporters of the project contend that Franchot — a self-styled maverick and an independent who delights in confounding establishment members of his party — will come through, particularly now that a majority of the Montgomery Council Council is on board.

“I don’t think Candidate Franchot wants to be known as the guy who derailed 20 years of planning to replace the American Legion Bridge and provide a balanced transportation solution to Marylanders,” said John Kane, a Republican-activist-turned-Independent and a former head of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

“Candidate Franchot is going to want to show he is part of the solution,” Kane added. “It’s not a road, it’s an all-of-the above [approach], which is what we’ve been after.”

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