A new way to pay for Md. roads

Public-private ventures would fund transportation `mega-projects'

October 05, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

GAITHERSBURG -- Seeking a new way to finance transportation "mega-projects," the Ehrlich administration said yesterday that it will seek partnerships with private companies to help fund highway and mass transit expansion and share the proceeds.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said the first projects for which Maryland will explore such partnerships involve the Capital Beltway and the Interstate 270 corridor. He said the model could be used in the future to expedite construction of express toll lanes on the Baltimore Beltway or Interstate 95 between the city and Washington.

An invitation for private companies to submit ideas will go out next week and will be Maryland's first foray into a type of transportation financing that has been adopted by several states.

During a bus tour of a proposed transit project in Montgomery County, Flanagan said the type of partnerships Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. supports could involve private participation in financing, construction or operations.

Private financing, Flanagan said, could enable the state to move forward with critical projects more quickly.

"Traditionally, a lot of the projects have waited many decades past when they were needed," Flanagan said.

Typically under such a partnership, the state provides the land for a transportation project and a private company or consortium bears part of the cost of construction and operations in exchange for a share of tolls.

Public-private ventures have become an increasingly popular means of financing big-ticket projects in a time of strained state budgets and a political climate that discourages elected officials from seeking tax increases. Virginia, California and Texas are among the states with such projects in the works.

The Bush administration has been a vigorous advocate of such partnerships, and last year's transportation authorization bill made it easier for such projects to qualify for tax-exempt bonds.

Virginia is moving forward with a plan under which Fluor Virginia Inc. and Transurban (USA) Development Inc. would spend about $900 million to add four lanes to a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway from Springfield to Great Falls.

Under the plan, car-poolers could use the new express lanes for free, while others would pay a toll that would vary depending on the level of congestion. The consortium would share toll revenue.

Congestion pricing is part of Maryland's plans for the proposed Intercounty Connector linking Interstate 95 and I-270, as well as the addition of express lanes to I-95 northeast of Baltimore. Flanagan is an outspoken backer of the approach - derided by critics as "Lexus lanes" - for other projects such as the I-270 expansion.

The projects for which Maryland is seeking private-sector proposals would widen congested highways in Washington's suburbs. One involves a stretch of I-270 and U.S. 15 from Frederick to Interstate 370, a spur near Gaithersburg. The other would run from that point on I-270 to the western Capital Beltway and across the Potomac River to Georgetown Pike in Virginia - a project that also would involve a wider river crossing at the site of the American Legion Bridge.

The Ehrlich administration also is seeking ideas for private-sector involvement in the Corridor Cities Transitway, a long-planned line that would connect the Shady Grove Metro station in Rockville with the I-270 corridor communities of Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg. That project is still in the planning stages, and transportation officials have yet to decide whether it would be a light rail line or Bus Rapid Transit running on dedicated lanes separate from other traffic.

Montgomery County, where the potential projects are concentrated, is the most heavily populated jurisdiction in the state. Voters there consistently rank traffic as one of their top concerns. Ehrlich, who is seeking re-election, has consistently championed road projects in the area - notably the Intercounty Connector.

I-270 is among the most congested corridors in Maryland, with backups that exceed the worst in the Baltimore area.

At the peak of morning rush hour, Washington-bound traffic regularly backs up as far as Frederick County, said State Highway Administrator Neal J. Pedersen.

He said Maryland's Transportation Department has the authority to enter into public-private partnerships under legislation passed before Ehrlich took office. But any such agreement would receive scrutiny by the General Assembly.

Flanagan said the state could decide to fund the projects through conventional means - such as toll-backed bonds and money from the Transportation Trust Fund, derived from vehicle registration fees and gasoline and title taxes, among other sources.

The secretary said the state's solicitation - called a Request for Expressions of Interest - is an "open-ended" process that could yield a wide variety of proposals.

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