The Battle of the Beltway has become a huge issue in MoCo politics.
Forget about Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposals to widen Interstate 270 and improve the American Legion Bridge – county leaders have effectively conceded the need for those projects.
The real sticking point now is what will happen to the Beltway between the I-270 spur and I-95. The governor would like to contract with a public-private partnership (“P3”) to widen it. Legions of MoCo opponents are bursting out of the woodwork to oppose that plan. What will happen?
The last time MoCo saw a fight over a giant state road project was when the Intercounty Connector (ICC) was built. Like Hogan’s proposed new Beltway lanes, the ICC was a highway project that relied on tolls to generate financing. And like the Beltway project, the ICC attracted a coalition of environmentalists, neighbors, smart growthers and (some) elected officials to oppose it. But there are many differences between these battles and they provide clues to discerning the future.
Here are a few of them:
The ICC mostly runs through areas of the county that are moderately or lightly populated. Its construction still caused enough neighborhood disruption to arouse grass-roots opposition.
The Beltway, on the other hand, goes near and through some of the densest areas in MoCo. Additionally, it runs through the Democratic Crescent, the downcounty area stretching from Bethesda to Takoma Park that plays an outsize role in Democratic primaries. This guarantees adamant, massive resistance from a politically crucial region that will dwarf the grass-roots effort against the ICC. It is only now getting started.
Support for the ICC was bipartisan. In 2006, incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich was challenged by two Democrats running in their party’s primary: MoCo Executive Doug Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. All three of them supported the ICC.
Ehrlich began the road’s construction, while O’Malley – who defeated Ehrlich – finished it.
Inside Montgomery County, Democratic politicians split on the ICC in sometimes unpredictable ways. County Council Member Phil Andrews, who represented Rockville and Gaithersburg, opposed the road while the entire District 17 state delegation, which also represented those two cities, supported it. Reflecting disagreements between Democrats over the project, the County Council voted three times to oppose the ICC between 1999 and 2002 and then voted to support it in 2002 and 2005.
In contrast, today’s Beltway project has a strong partisan tinge.
The project’s author is Hogan, the state’s most prominent Republican. Meanwhile, almost all of MoCo’s partisan elected officials – all of whom are Democrats – oppose the project or are skeptical of it. In fact, if any MoCo elected officials other than Comptroller Peter Franchot support the project, they are being very quiet about it!
Throw in the political role played by the Democratic Crescent and it’s entirely possible that opposition to the Beltway widening could become a deal-breaking litmus test for down-county and county-wide candidates in the next MoCo Democratic primary, something that never happened to the same extent with the ICC.
The county executives
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan served in the 12 years prior to the ICC’s groundbreaking in 2006. Duncan was a huge cheerleader for the ICC but he was more than that. Through his End Gridlock slate, Duncan made the ICC arguably the top issue in the 2002 County Council elections and used it to win a majority of council seats. It helped that the ICC was supported by most of the county’s business community, which steered hundreds of thousands of dollars to Duncan and his allies.
Today’s executive, Marc Elrich, was one of the fiercest opponents of the ICC and lost an at-large council race against Duncan’s slate. He is now the top opponent of Hogan’s Beltway plan. Hogan doesn’t care about Elrich’s opposition and the executive can’t stop the road widening directly. However, like Duncan, Elrich can use his position on this project to pump up his base and try to ward off any challengers in the next election – especially any who are brave enough (or foolish enough!) to be open to Hogan’s plan.
The weight of history
The ICC may have been completed in 2014, but it originated in plans for an outer Beltway dating back to the 1950s. It was also embedded in county master plans for decades. The road attracted both support and opposition from generations of politicians and was studied several times in the 1980s and 1990s. All of this history created long-term momentum for the project and helped it survive an attempt by Governor Parris Glendening to kill it in 1999. Seven years after its “death,” the ICC broke ground.
The Beltway’s history is different.
After its initial construction was completed in 1964, the Beltway was widened in several phases between 1972 and 1992 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was replaced in 2008. While some of Hogan’s predecessors studied Beltway expansion after the early 1990s, those plans went nowhere and were opposed in some instances even by politicians who supported the ICC. Stating a sentiment typical of Beltway widening opponents, Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer said in 1989, “You would literally have to wipe out existing neighborhoods, and I don’t think we want to do that.”
After 25 years of on-again, off-again study, Hogan’s P3 version of the project was announced less than two years ago.
The ICC was supported by dozens of politicians over decades but today’s Beltway project is largely dependent on one person – Hogan. It’s too early to say whether the Beltway proposal will accumulate the historical momentum that helped make the ICC a reality.
Consider the view of potential private sector bidders. For all its size, the ICC was a fairly straightforward multiple-phase design-build project for contractors. The state performed studies for the project, acquired the land, put together the financing plan and now administers the road. All the contractors had to do was design and build it under state supervision.
Under Hogan’s P3 for the Beltway, the winning bidder consortium will have much more responsibility for the project than did the ICC contractors, including operation and maintenance. Most critically, the P3 will have to bear much, maybe most, of the financing risk and will be dependent on toll revenues to earn a long-term return. How many bidders are ready for that?
But there is more. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns park land that is necessary for the Beltway project, is resisting turning over its land to the state. In a forum for Planning Board candidates that I moderated last week, Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson indicated that his agency would take the issue to court. If that happens, how many years will that delay the project? How are potential bidders going to view that? Will any of them want to incur the financial risk of being responsible for a project that requires land that may not be acquired? ICC contractors didn’t have to worry about any of this, but for whoever signs a Beltway P3, there could be BIG worries.
Let’s add up all of the lessons from above. 1. Because of its location, the Beltway project will generate more heated political opposition from the grass roots than did the ICC. 2. The ICC had support from many MoCo Democratic elected officials for generations. The Beltway project has very little support from elected Democrats other than the Comptroller. 3. The ICC was built using comparatively straightforward design-build construction contracts. A Beltway P3 agreement could be the most complicated procurement contract in state history with innumerable risks that could deter bidders. None of this augurs well for the Beltway widening.
Additionally, Hogan delayed the Beltway project to follow improvements to I-270, thereby giving opponents more time to build power.
No huge transportation project is associated with one elected official more than the Beltway widening is dependent on Hogan, and he is racing against time to get a P3 signed before his second and final term in office expires. If Hogan can sign the agreement, it will be hard for a successor to undo. But if opponents run out the clock, the project might die under a successor.
Then again, the ICC “died” too! So the only certainty in all of this is uncertainty.
Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.