Transurban finds firm to build I-495/I-270 toll lanes, but timing questions remain

Traffic along the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway at the American Legion Bridge. (Courtesy Bruce DePuyt)

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After a nearly two-year search, the consortium tapped to spearhead an ambitious toll lanes project in Montgomery County has found itself a construction partner.

AM Partners, a conglomerate led by Transurban, announced on Wednesday that it has taken on Los Angeles-based Tutor Perini to design and build toll lanes along portions of the Capital Beltway and I-270. The project is a top priority for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), though it has roused opposition locally.

Early last year, the Transurban group outbid two other conglomerates, despite the loss of its original construction partner, Archer Western, which separated from AM Partners for reasons that have never been made public.

Northern Virginia has an extensive network of variably priced toll lanes, owned and operated by Transurban. Hogan, a real estate broker before seeking office, unveiled plans to add “express” lanes to some of Maryland’s most congested highways in 2017.

Last month, the Federal Highway Administration gave its blessing to Hogan’s “traffic relief plan.” That decision and the signing by AM Partners of Tutor Perini give the project momentum that has eluded it for some time.

“A project of this scale demands a strong team with the track record to collaborate and innovate,” said Pierce Coffee, president of Transurban North America, in a statement. “We are confident the Tutor Perini team is the right partner to optimize the project as we work together to continue designing one of the largest public-private transportation projects in the nation to keep Maryland’s travelers and its economy moving,” she added.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said he is “not very happy” with the selection of Tutor Perini. He pointed to projects the firm has been involved in that went over budget.

“Not sure what we’re getting here,” he added. “I’m not sure they’re (the) best partners.”

The term-limited Hogan hopes the Board of Public works will sign off on a 50-year contract with Transurban, estimated at around $4 billion, before he leaves office in January. Gubernatorial candidates Wes Moore (D) and Dan Cox (R) have suggested they would take a different approach to congestion relief than the one Hogan has pursued.

Elrich told reporters there are less costly, “more reasonable” ways to ease traffic, and he offered conflicting signals about what steps he would support in the governor’s final months in office. “I think it’s too premature to talk about litigation,” he said, later adding, “I’m more than happy to be supportive of litigation if that’s what it takes.”

Local union leader: Tutor Perini ‘a good company’

A prominent local union leader who represents construction workers praised the selection of Tutor Perini.

“We’re comfortable with Tutor Perini. (They’re a) good union contractor,” said Dennis Martire, vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager for LiUNA. Martire said he reached a Project Labor Agreement with Tutor Perini for the toll lanes project.

He said he expects the company to hire local workers and engage in worker training. And he said the agreement will help the project stay on track. “It just standardizes everything so everybody knows what the rules are for the project, as far as work rules, overtime, strikes, all that stuff,” he said.

“If anyone has a dispute on the job, there’s no walking off the job. If there’s a dispute, you just settle it through a grievance procedure and work keeps proceeding,” he added. Martire said the labor agreement will help ensure there are enough workers to complete the ambitious project.

Despite the long-awaited addition of a construction firm and the green light from the feds, the toll lanes plan faces an uncertain future.

A losing bidder, Capital Express Mobility Partners, has sued the Maryland Department of Transportation, alleging that there were flaws in the agency’s procurement process. A hearing in that case, which has dragged on for months, is scheduled for October, with a trial set to begin in late November. In addition, opponents of the project, including the Sierra Club, have signaled they may file suit to stop the toll lanes plan.

Toll lanes supporters also face a potential time crunch because of the hurdles they still must clear.

MDOT and AM Partners must reach final agreement on the design and financial terms of the construction contract, a deal which must win approval from the Maryland Transportation Authority’s board of directors.

Because the toll lanes plan falls under the state’s public-private partnership law, legislative leaders get 30 days to review the contract, a window that could be stretched to 45 days if lawmakers request additional time. In addition, the project must undergo a 60-day “mandatory referral” process with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning commission.

Only then could the MDOT-AM Partners deal go to the Board of Public Works, a panel that consists of the governor (who serves as chair), Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and Treasurer Dereck Davis (D).

Ben Ross, head of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and a leading project critic, cast doubt on whether the project can get through the process before Hogan leaves office. “I don’t think they can make it,” he said.

Martire, the union leader, called the tight timeline “a big unknown.” “Politics is what it is,” he said. “I’m assuming we’re on track.” 

Like Elrich, Ross expressed concern about Tutor Perini’s track record on big projects. He called their involvement “a big flashing red light and blaring sirens for taxpayers to watch out.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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