By BALTIMORE SUN EDITORIAL BOARD
Last year, the House of Delegates passed HB 1091, a bill that required greater legislative oversight of public-private partnerships valued at more than $500 million. The measure died in the Senate, which is a real shame because it would come in handy right now. That’s because Maryland’s largest such partnership or P3 — a proposed $11 billion-or-more widening of Interstate 270 and Maryland’s portion of the Capital Beltway — is on hold right now because Comptroller Peter Franchot is asking questions that Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of Transportation aren’t answering.
Rarely has such a massive public infrastructure project in this state faced as little public scrutiny — and as many objections from local elected officials and residents — as this one. Yet it was moving forward toward the bidding stage at disconcerting speed, at least it was until Mr. Franchot intervened and declined to endorse the plan now pending before the Board of Public Works, the three-member body on which the comptroller holds the crucial swing vote. As might be expected, Mr. Franchot is now taking some social media salvos from the governor and his supporters. But on this issue, he is firmly in the right. Why the rush to do this wrong? Why, as Mr. Franchot has posted on Facebook, force this “unvetted proposal that is only half-baked” down everyone’s throats?
There’s no question that the D.C. suburbs have a traffic congestion problem, but a project of this scale requires caution and consensus. Certainly, Baltimore’s proposed $2.9 billion Red Line had that before Governor Hogan killed it four years ago. Baltimore County’s executive had come on board. So had the city’s mayor. In Annapolis, the governor and lawmakers had their say and voted for funding. But a P3 is different. It doesn’t get this level of oversight because it’s not dependent on tax dollars but on private financing supported by toll revenue from the added lanes. That puts far too much power in the hands of the governor. The Board of Public Works is the only check on that authority, and that’s too much to expect from just three people (one of whom is the governor, always a sure yes vote on his own initiatives) given the complexities.
Naturally, Mr. Franchot’s stand has gotten a political spin in State House circles. It’s because he’s mulling a run for governor in 2022 and the Democrat needs to shore up his party’s support, some say. Certainly, the comptroller has been helpful to the Republican governor’s agenda in the past, often siding with him on crucial BPW votes while publicly haranguing the legislature’s Democratic leaders. Others see the former Montgomery County delegate with populist inclinations as simply reacting to his voter base and widespread misgivings about the project including the taking of private properties along the route. All could be true, but it’s of little importance.
At the heart of the matter isn’t politics, it’s policy. Major transportation projects of the past were far more driven by consensus because they had to be. How could a governor expect the Maryland General Assembly to finance some new initiative (usually with a gas tax increase) unless most everyone was on board? But that’s not part of the P3 formula, and shame on the state Senate for not recognizing this potential problem. In seeking to convenience public-private partnerships, legislators have provided insufficient oversight. And that’s something they’ll need to correct in 2020, not just because of the current standoff but to avoid future projects foisted on the state by future governors.
One other point: Mr. Franchot had tried to negotiate a compromise with Mr. Hogan, insisting that a federal environment review move forward before any private property was acquired, making sure a certain percentage of revenue went toward transit and making I-270 a higher priority. Apparently, those conditions were later withdrawn, which is why Mr. Franchot supported the project at one point but opposes it now. We would argue that it should not have come down to a negotiation between the two men. While the comptroller deserves credit for standing up to the governor on a matter of great consequence, how much better if all stakeholders in such an important undertaking had a say and their own questions answered. Democracy is, admittedly, tough, but it’s better than transportation policy by gubernatorial decree.