The Washington Post
Company backs out of Md. toll project
Decision suspends work on relieving congestion along Beltway and I-270
Maryland’s vision to use one of the nation’s biggest publicprivate partnerships to relieve D.c.-area traffic congestion faces serious jeopardy, as the private team picked to develop it quit the project on Thursday.
The team, led by Australian toll company Transurban, backed out amid uncertainty that Maryland’s new Gov. Wes Moore (D) supported the proposal and the unresolved — potentially costly — lawsuits over the project’s environmental implications.
“We are making a tough decision, but the right decision,” Amanda Baxter, a senior vice president for Transurban North America, said in an interview.
“We chose the path that protects the taxpayers and stakeholders, since we are walking away from the opportunity to deliver this for them,” she said.
The decision suspends progress on replacing the American Legion Bridge and relieving the congested Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 with highoccupancy toll lanes. It’s a potentially insurmountable setback to a $6 billion plan first announced in 2017 by Maryland’s previous governor, Republican Larry Hogan.
The project faced criticism from Moore for not being designed with more transit or equity for underserved communities. Before that, it was slowed through the planning phase by opposition in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Officials there say toll lanes would primarily benefit the wealthy, and encouraging more cars on the road would harm the environment.
Moore said in a statement that “the state remains committed to continuing progress and will move forward in a manner that ensures social equity, environmental protection, and engagement with local partners while always acting in the best interest of taxpayers.”
Transurban led the consortium, called AM Partners, picked two years ago to develop a 50-year proposal to design, build and operate the toll lanes. Hogan had pitched the public-private partnership as a way to relieve notori
ous bottlenecks without a direct cost to taxpayers, but project critics — including Moore — have said the tolls would be too costly for many motorists.
AM Partners had been working under that contract for years to develop plans for the project, and the company faced a March 21 deadline to submit a full proposal for state review. The team requested a four-month extension to await potential resolution on two environmental lawsuits and to try to realign the project with Moore’s vision.
The new administration did not grant the extension, so the consortium exercised a contract provision to walk away.
Had the deal been finalized, Transurban would have controlled more than 100 miles of express toll lanes around the nation’s capital — 37 in Maryland and 65 in Northern Virginia. The company had pushed the project citing benefits of a regional network of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes connecting the two states in one of the most trafficclogged areas of the country.
Maryland’s proposal has drawn criticism for its potential effects on the environment and adjacent communities in the densely developed suburbs. Opponents celebrated Transurban’s decision to walk away.
“This is great news for Maryland taxpayers, Maryland drivers and Maryland transit riders,” said Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which has been advocating against the project. “We now can move on to build a truly balanced transportation system that lets us travel across Maryland as we choose, by rail or by road.”
Others lamented Transurban’s decision, which will further slow down any prospects of rebuilding the bridge or creating a Maryland system of express lanes that mirrors the one on the Virginia side of the Beltway.
Some experts say identical highway capacities on both sides of the river would bring a smoother commute.
“It is disappointing that Transurban is no longer participating in this project, but nevertheless, it remains critical to the D.C. region and needs to move forward,” Jason Stanford, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said. “We will continue working with the Moore administration to add capacity and provide essential, long-term traffic relief to Maryland and Virginia residents who depend on the American Legion Bridge and I-270.”
The timeline for next steps is not immediately clear.
The federal environmental approvals for the project allowed for high-occupancy toll lanes, and any major revisions to the plan to add rail or other mass transit could trigger a brand new review process.
The Moore administration could recruit another company to step in and bid to operate the same project.
Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller (D), a traffic-engineer by training who was overseeing parts of the project, said in statement that “Gov. Moore’s and my priority will continue to be delivering a balanced and equitable solution to address traffic congestion along the I-270/ I-495 corridor.”
The other public-private partnership launched by the Hogan administration has been beset by delays and cost-overruns. The Purple Line, connecting the northern, suburban spokes of D.C.’S Metro system is 4.5 years behind schedule and $1.45 billion over budget.
Baxter said Transurban, a global company that she said delivers such megaprojects in other countries, looked carefully at how environmental challenges to the Purple Line slowed it down and ultimately shut down progress.