Despite project financial and execution issues that have gained nationwide attention, Maryland lawmakers turned back two proposals to modify the state’s 2013 public-private partnership law—averting at least for now added scrutiny of major state and developer infrastructure collaborations.
Two bills, the MDOT Promises Act (HB67/SB843) and P3 Reform (HB485/SB361), passed the House but lagged in Senate committees before the legislature adjourned on April 12. They called for creation of a gubernatorially appointed oversight review board that would analyze P3 proposals and provide a separate required financial risk analysis before any large P3 contract could be approved, among other mandates.
Although the legislation arose out of strident local opposition to an $11-billion progressive P3 project that will add tolled express lanes to sections of the I-495/Capital Beltway and I-270, plus a new Potomac River crossing to Virginia, its supporters insisted the new requirements would apply only to projects not yet approved by the state’s three-member Board of Public Works.
Proponents also cited the protracted effort to build the Purple Line light rail system as justification for additional P3 oversight, given that project’s projected two-year delay and millions of dollars in cost overruns. Both projects are backed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who also sits on the board.
Yet even project skeptics on the state Senate committee viewed the bill as an attempt to stall the Beltway/I-270 plan, particularly since the Board of Public Works has yet to vote on the project’s pre-development agreement with the team led by Transurban (USA) Operations, Inc. and Macquarie Infrastructure Developments LLC that was selected in February to manage the megaproject.
In addition, the Maryland Dept. of Transportation warned that enactment would increase project costs and uncertainty that would “irreparably damage” prospects for future private investment.
Hogan and MDOT "said that the plan to add private toll lanes to interstates 495 and 270 would be at “no net cost' to Maryland taxpayers. But the administration has made clear that taxpayers cannot count on this promise," said opponent Barbara Coufal, co-chair of Ciitizens Agains Beltway Expansion in a published opinion. She claims the agency "objected to a provision in the MDOT Promises Act that would prohibit state subsidies to the I-495/I-270 developer."
Coufal speculates the objections relates to the project draft environmental impact study that estimates the state may need to pay the developer up to $482 million, "not including the cost of moving water and sewer lines or other utility infrastructure."
But P3 advocate Emmet Tydings, co-founder of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, told Maryland Matters the bills' authors were "grabbing at straws for anything to stop the process and misfired."
Supporters have already vowed to renew efforts to change Maryland’s P3 law during next year’s legislative session.