Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn on Thursday revealed more information about Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to add capacity to congested highways in Montgomery County.
Rahn said the state is pushing to add four toll lanes to the entire Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 through a public-private partnership that ideally won’t cost the state any money. He said the private partner would be tasked with figuring out how to pay for an estimated $7.6 billion project to add the lanes to the two highways through toll revenue.
A third piece of the estimated overall $9 billion plan calls for taking over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from the federal government and adding lanes to it.
Rahn told Montgomery County Council members during a Transportation Committee meeting in Rockville that the plan would include improvements to the American Legion Bridge. He said the bridge would be fixed, but didn’t have details about how capacity could be added to the Potomac River crossing that connects Montgomery County with Virginia.
“We’re having conversations with Virginia, so our systems could link in a very smooth way,” Rahn said. “So that people using express lanes in Maryland can continue into Virginia.”
He later added, “Whatever we do with the Legion Bridge, it’s going to have to carry whatever traffic is generated on each side.”
The bridge is a notorious traffic choke point for Beltway commuters and travelers.
When Hogan first announced the highway widening proposal, he did not directly address improvements to the bridge. Montgomery County council members later expressed concern that the additional highway lanes would be less useful if the choke point remained.
After Rahn acknowledged the planned improvements, Council President Roger Berliner said he was “heartened.”
Council members pressed Rahn to consider adding a transit component as part of the plans. But he didn’t seem receptive.
“When we start talking rail, you’re talking exponentially more expensive,” Rahn said. He said transit buses could use the toll lanes at no cost.
He noted that the state has made significant transit investments—most notably in the Purple Line—in the last several years.
“The highways have gotten worse over that same period of time,” Rahn said. “It’s time to do something about the highways.”
He said the state will seek a proposal that limits the taking of properties near the highways and protects Holy Cross Hospital, Rock Creek and Sligo parks, which border the Beltway. However, he believes that even with these constraints, four lanes can be added to both major highways.
Berliner asked Rahn if the state would consider two reversible lanes on I-270 to handle rush-hour traffic typically seen on the highway. Commuters traditionally pack the southbound lanes in the morning and northbound lanes in the evening. The council has backed reversible lanes as a transit solution on the highway for several years.
Rahn said he doesn’t believe the reversible lanes are long-term solution because the state expects the I-270 corridor to grow significantly as the biomedical industry expands.
“What 270 looks like today is not what 270 is going to look like in 10 or even 20 years,” Rahn said.
Another new detail that emerged Thursday is that the state suspects that some parts of the project might not pay for themselves.
Rahn described it as “gap funding”: A private partner concludes there’s too much risk to pay for a particularly expensive part of a project and seeks subsidies from the state to cover the gap—in this case, projected toll revenue. He noted that Virginia had to pay about $700 million in state funds for express lanes on its portion of the Beltway.
“We suspect there are places within [the Beltway] that gap funding might be needed,” Rahn said. However, he added that the state might cover these funds through payments on more profitable sections of the project.
He noted that the state expects to find several private partners to build different portions of the massive project.
Ben Ross, a transit advocate and member of the Action Committee for Transit who attended the meeting, said the gap funding comments concerned him.
“I think the big news is he has backed off the governor’s promise that it will pay for itself,” Ross said. “Now he just says some of it won’t pay for itself and we hope the other part will be so profitable that it will make up for it.”
Ross said he remains concerned that tolls on the new lanes will be in excess of $40.
Rahn said during the meeting he did not know how much the tolls would be.
“If the [private partner] tries to charge too much, people won’t use it,” Rahn said. “If they charge too little, they won’t recover their investment. That has limited the level of tolls to a market-driven level. I don’t know what that level is here.”
The state estimated the $7.6 billion cost of adding four lanes to both highways by using a lane calculation of $100 million per lane mile, according to Rahn.
Action Committee for Transit has partnered with organizations to oppose the widening of the Beltway and is circulating a petition that had 200 signatures as of Thursday. Ross said he remains concerned high tolls will lead to only wealthy vehicle owners using the new lanes and taxpayers having to make up the difference.
Rahn noted Thursday that the current lanes on the highway will remain free, while the toll lanes should help reduce congestion on the free lanes. He described the public-private partnership as the “big kahuna” internationally because it’s one of the largest being proposed in the world.
“There’s a huge amount of interest in this,” Rahn said. He added that he hopes that interest will translate into unique proposals to build the four lanes. The state is purposely keeping its requests for information—the initial step in the process—vague to generate new ideas, according to Rahn.
The timeline remains unclear. The state has issued a request for information and has asked interested companies to respond by Dec. 20.
After that, Rahn said, the still will take the ideas and draft a formal request for proposals (RFP). The state hopes the RFP will elicit detailed bids from companies on how they plan to add the toll lanes to the highways and on project cost estimates.
He said the state expects responses to its RFP within the next two years and construction could begin within the next five years—before Hogan would be required to step down due to term limits if he were to win a second term in the 2018 election.