Governor Larry Hogan is proposing a major infrastructure plan in an attempt to alleviate highway congestion in Maryland. His plan would spend nine billion dollars in order to add four toll lanes each to the Interstate 495 (Capital Beltway), Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington (BW) Parkway according to The Baltimore Sun. Hogan claims that this plan will improve “the quality of life” for Maryland citizens. Yet, The Baltimore Sun reports opposition from “Smart Growth” Groups, environmentalists, and transit advocates who are “flabbergasted that Maryland would spend that much money on a solution they doubt will solve gridlock.”
The traffic alleviation plan would create two toll lanes on each road going in either direction —four new lanes per road. The cost to use the toll road has not yet been announced as of Oct. 9. It is expected to cost 1.4 billion dollars for BW Parkway expansion, and 7.4 billion for I-495 and I-270 as reported by The Baltimore Sun. New roads will be built and maintained by private companies through Public Private Partnerships (PPP). This plan represents the largest PPP in North-America according to Hogan.
In this context, a PPP means that the private companies who win the contract for the highway widening would build the road then split the toll revenue with the state.
Proponents of the plan are going “going gaga” according to Robert Poole, a toll policy expert, and director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation a libertarian think tank.
Hogan will not be held back by the Democrat-controlled State Legislature, despite left-leaning politicians opposition to the plan. He is legally able to act unilaterally on this matter of transportation. To comply with Maryland state law, the governor only needs the approval of the Board of Public Work. The Baltimore Sun suggests that this approval will not be an issue for Hogan. The plan is pending approval from the United States Department of the Interior who must give over control of the BW Parkway—from the current managers, the National Park Service (NPS)— before work can begin. Hogan said that he has already met with US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and is ready to begin. However, a spokesperson from the Department of the Interior denied this, telling reporters that “no decisions related to issues involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were made.”
Not everyone is so ecstatic. Brian O’Malley, the president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance told The Baltimore Sun that he is skeptical. He said that he expects the plan to not ease traffic levels. O’Malley —whose own website give Maryland a “D” rating for congestion— points out that in Los Angeles authorities completed a 1.6 billion dollar highway expansion project, but traffic levels returned to what they were before the construction within a year.
Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth has also critiqued Hogan’s plan, saying that “cars don’t just teleport to these highways.” Schwartz has concerns about the level of traffic on connection roads.
A 2008 study of how widening the BW Parkway would affect the traffic and the environment co-authored by the US Department of Transportation, NPS, MD Department of Transportation, and the Maryland State Highway Association found that widening: would not reduce traffic levels, would “impact forests, streams, rivers, and sensitive species,” and would have negative consequences for the surrounding communities.
Mass Transit Advocates also oppose the plan such as Baltimore Democratic Delegate and House Appropriations Chairwoman, Maggie McIntosh. She said that she is fearful that the nine billion dollars could strangle the budgets for other transportation projects such as Mass Transit.
Nevertheless, Governor Hogan is pushing forward. Within six months, he expects to have the private company bids. Afterwards, there is an arduous process for approval, then long-term construction efforts before the roads are ready. The Baltimore Sun reports that “It could [take] years before the toll lanes are up and running.”
The Governor has reason to rush. As his term comes to an end, an infrastructure —typically seen as a bipartisan— victory would help him maintain his position in power.
Hogan —a relatively popular Republican governor in deeply Democratic state— is facing re-election against several Democrats next year.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) Professor Todd Eberly explained how this plan could be an electoral strategy to The Baltimore Sun. Hogan’s plan will directly benefit those in an area with a lot of voters. Eberly explained, “These are folks who spend a substantial part of their day, every day, sitting in traffic. You have a sitting governor who is basically saying, I’m going to do something about this.” Notably, this plan will benefit “swing voters” who may propel Hogan back into the governor’s mansion next year. According to Eberly, “This election is going to be determined in Howard and Baltimore counties […] You have a lot of middle- and upper-middle-class working professionals. These are swing voters, and people you need to persuade.”
Governor Hogan’s office expects to have challenges to the widening, but his unilateral authority allows him to move forward with the plan regardless. One can expect this initiative to resurface during into debate during the 2018 elections.