Opponents rejoiced when Transurban withdrew from the toll lane project


Last week, when antipodean toll road giant Transurban announced it was pulling out of former Maryland Governor Larry Hogans plan to oversize the Beltway and I-270, opponents of the project allowed themselves a small celebration.

“I have to admit that a group of us got together on Saturday night,” he said Barbara Coufal, Chair of the Citizens Against Beltway Expansion (CABE) group. “We had champagne.”

Josh TulkinDirector of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, celebrated with his wife and their 7-year-old daughter, both of whom have lived through the ups and downs of the past four years and even sat to watch him testify during Board of Public Works hearings.

“They are very well educated in this area,” Tulkin said.

Tom Huckera former member of Montgomery County Council, said he felt “a tremendous sense of relief” at the news.

If the win was sweet, it may be because the fight was so sour. Hogan had pushed the plan hard. Allowing Transurban to build more highways and collect tolls for 50 years wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime, he said. First, he claimed not a single home would be demolished if four additional lanes were added to I-495 in Montgomery and Prince George counties. And when the critics pressed back, Hogan got snippy.

In May 2019, Hucker organized a Silver Spring town hall that attracted 800 people who resisted Hogan’s promise. While Hucker was on stage, the governor began making potshots on Twitter.

“These anti-congestion aid activists have no regard for the hundreds of thousands of you stuck in soul-crushing traffic every day,” began a Hogan tweet. In another, Hogan described opponents planning to “keep the streets full of traffic.”

Hucker said: “I read his tweets to the crowd and said they should know that the governor called them pro-jam and was conspiring to increase traffic. You’d think the state governor would have better things to do than troll people on Twitter.”

A political action committee linked to Hogan bought ads on Facebook demonizing opponents like Hucker and Montgomery Del. Marc Korman (D). Hucker even got that classic Attacks ad treatment: a photo of him frozen in black and white.

“He made it personal,” Hucker said. “We knew he could be petty and thin-skinned.”

Tulkin said, “I’ve been doing political work in Maryland for 20 years, and it was by far the most aggressive, vicious, and personal approach to politics I’ve seen.”

CABE’s Coufal was similarly concerned about Hogan’s tactics.

“Not only was he mean to us, he was mean to all the elected officials, who stuck their heads up and said, ‘Can’t we do this better?'” she told me. “It was deeply insulting. He said we love soul crushing intercourse and that’s just not true. What we want is a workable solution that doesn’t force people to pay high tolls that doesn’t ruin our environment.”

A spokesman for Hogan declined a request for comment. One of Hogan’s advisers said critics of the governor’s tone were disingenuous.

“I think what you’re seeing here is kind of a classic tactic that Governor Hogan’s opponents have used over time: positioning themselves as the victim after they’ve attacked him or his proposals,” he said Doug Mayera former Hogan communications director and leader of the non-profit organization Traffic Relief Now, which supports toll lanes.

Mayer said the suggestion that dialogue might have been possible if the governor had been nicer “is the biggest crap I’ve ever seen and I’ve been in politics for 20 years.”

He added: “These people can whine and complain all they want while high fives, but some version of this project will move forward. The question now is how much it will be and who will pay for it.”

I asked Korman if he cried out when he heard Transurban pick up his concrete mixers and go home.

“I wouldn’t say I cheered,” Korman said. “We have to think about what the next steps are. For me it’s not just contradicting, contradicting, contradicting. It is about a sensible, multimodal approach [to traffic]. nothing is over It’s just a new phase of work.”

The unsuccessful bidder of the public-private project could proceed to takeover. A lawsuit is pending against the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Friends of Moses Hall and others.

And traffic jams have not disappeared. Hucker said his side had always wanted a new American Legion Bridge. And they want to give serious thought to options like reversible lanes, using hard shoulders at peak times, incentivizing telecommuting, diverting some interstate traffic to the Intercounty Connector, and increasing transit traffic.

I wondered how what seemed like a fait accompli – Hogan seemed to treat it as such – was finally defeated.

“You know how important dynamics are in politics and in social discourse,” said Hucker.

Early on, the momentum seemed to be with the Republican governor. But Hucker said when he went to the town hall meetings organized by MDOT, he noticed a basic level of concern among the public. And he felt the public was being shut out of the process. He figured the momentum could be stopped and then reversed.

“I expected that a project that didn’t go through scrutiny wouldn’t stand up,” Hucker said.

Hucker argued that enough concerns could be raised to delay a final decision until a Democratic governor was elected.

“That’s exactly what worked,” he said. Governor Wes Moore (D) is critical of the project.

Tulkin said the entire episode exemplified an old maxim: “If someone tells you something is too good to be true, it probably is.”

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