Some Montgomery County residents and elected officials on Monday voiced their opposition of a proposed public-private partnership to widen I-270 from the American Legion bridge to I-370 — particularly the toll structure.
The public-private partnership’s first phase focuses on reconstructing the American Legion Bridge and constructing two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction from the southern end of I-270 to I-370.
Gov. Larry Hogan has actively promoted the $11 billion project, calling it the only viable solution to relieve traffic congestion. Opponents, many from Montgomery County, oppose it, claiming the overall toll structure would be costly to middle- and working-class residents and that it would not lead to long-term traffic relief.
Hogan introduced the project in 2017, but it has narrowed in scope since then — including most recently in May, when Maryland Department of Transportation officials announced most of the Capital Beltway’s removal from the first phase, but improvements could be made in later phases of the project.
The state has selected Accelerate Maryland Partners as the developer of the first phase, which includes Transurban and Macquarie Capital as lead project developer and an equity member involved in the project.
Roughly a dozen people on Monday said at a hearing held by the Maryland Department of Transportation that the plan would result in high tolls and not relieve long-term traffic congestion.
One speaker, Sally Stolz of Rockville, said the toll rates would be unaffordable to most middle- and working-class residents. She said Transurban, one of the main contractors involved in the plan, is incentivized to keep regular lanes clogged, so more people end up having to use the HOT lanes, which then increases the amount of revenue they would collect.
“This P3 is a soul-crushing plan,” Stolz said. “It is soul-crushing to think anyone would want to unleash it on us. It is not ‘traffic relief’ and not free. It’s an unconscionable regressive tax.”
How much motorists would pay in tolls is disputed between state officials and opponents.
The Maryland Department of Transportation says two-axle passenger vehicles would start at 20 cents a mile, with a “soft cap rate” at $1.50 and a general maximum rate of $3.76. Motorcyclists, buses and those who carpool would not pay tolls.
The soft cap rate would only apply to HOT lanes when motorists are driving faster than 50 miles per hour. But opponents at Monday’s hearing said drivers could actually pay upwards of $50, pointing to similar models used in northern Virginia.
Other speakers said the state should complete an environmental analysis before considering entering any deal. Linda Rosendorf, a member of Don’t Widen 270, a coalition against the project, was one of those people.
“Good government demands that full fiscal, environmental and social impacts of this project be determined before locking into a long-term exclusive project,” Rosendorf said. “No contract should be voted on, much less approved, until the environmental impact statement has been finalized.”
Only one speaker, Edgar Gonzalez of North Potomac, testified in support of the project.
Gonzalez said tolls should be affordable to middle- and working-class residents.
But the public-private partnership is the only viable way to raise the money to relieve traffic congestion along I-270, he said.
James Ports, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said in an interview that the project has been changed many times since it was first introduced in 2017 by Gov. Larry Hogan and his administration. The changes were in response to public concerns.
But now, the current version is the only viable option financially, Ports said.
“At some point, it doesn’t pay for itself,” he said of continuing to make changes to the project. “And so, we’re at a point now where this is pretty much the project we have to do.”
Still, residents and elected officials said the proposal would end up costing taxpayers who pay to use toll lanes, and there still were many unanswered questions about whether it was needed.
State Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Rockville) said she had four primary concerns about the project:
- The toll rate plan is confusing and can lead to excessive tolls. She recalled spending $67 in tolls to get to a conference in Northern Virginia
- Officials don’t know the environmental impact of the project yet
- Telework has changed when and how much people go into the office, and data around that should be reviewed
- With President Joe Biden in office, there’s more opportunity for projects to be funded with federal money, like the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River.
Del. Al Carr (D-Kensington) brought up a separate concern: the state’s current use of tolling and how it works for middle-class residents.
He said the state has set high penalties for failing to pay tolls for its current roads, like the Intercounty Connector, which runs from Montgomery County to Prince George’s County. Motorists could pay a $25 penalty for failing to pay a toll as small as $1.50, Carr said.
“Our district courts are clogged with tens of thousands of contested video toll late-fee transactions,” Carr said. “I am contacted on a weekly basis by Marylanders who have been caught up in this broken system and owe thousands of dollars. These are often regular working people who fell through the cracks of our system.”
Two call-in hearing sessions on the project are scheduled for Wednesday (2 to 4 p.m., then 6 to 8 p.m.), after two -in-person hearings were held Monday.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org