Critics of Md. governor’s plan to widen Capital Beltway storm Franchot’s Silver Spring happy hour, pressure comptroller to vote no

A determined group of Montgomery County residents on Tuesday held court at Comptroller Peter Franchot’s (D) Silver Spring Tuesday-evening happy hour, flexing their political muscles and putting significant pressure on Franchot to oppose Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to mitigate the traffic nightmare by way of widening the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

Franchot – a proponent and advocate for Maryland’s craft beer industry – held a campaign meet-and-greet event on Tuesday evening at Astro Lab Brewing. The comptroller heaped praise on Astro Lab’s owners for hiring Marylanders to staff their operation and for manufacturing their beer inside the state.

“I guess this is a campaign thing. I’m not running for anything,” Franchot joked.

A bit under the weather and battling a cold, the typically robust Franchot, 71, touted recent poll results that showed Marylanders overwhelmingly approve of the job that he is doing as the state’s comptroller. A poll last week showed that Franchot maintains high approval ratings among most Marylanders, a clear sign that Franchot could be a formidable 2022 gubernatorial contender.

“I’ve spent 12 years as comptroller going all over the state, being a fiscal moderate, doing my job…,” Franchot exclaimed.

Encircling Franchot in the back of the brewery were residents of Montgomery County who mostly live below the 270 split, eager to give Franchot a piece of their mind about the governor’s plans to widen the Beltway.

Franchot quickly acknowledged that many people showed up to his event to talk about “the Beltway issue.”

“We’re interested in your opinion!,” one of the attendees said, interrupting Franchot as he spoke.

“I’m very interested in it,” Franchot replied.

“I told the governor that I’m very interested in the testimony that is going to be given at the Board meeting, whenever it is held, scheduled.”

The “Beltway issue” refers to the decision made earlier this month by the three-member Maryland Board of Public Works, of which Franchot sits on, to delay a discussion and subsequent vote on the governor’s plan to widen I-495 and 270, as well as adding toll lanes. The original vote, which would designate the project as a public-private partnership, was scheduled for May 8.

The vote was delayed by Hogan, in part, because state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) was previously scheduled to be in Japan for her 50th wedding anniversary. Kopp – a member of the three-member Public Works panel and a longtime Bethesda resident – is said to be skeptical of Hogan’s plan to widen Montgomery County’s surrounding roadways.

Franchot told the beer-imbibing gathers that he has spent some time meeting with activists and others who are opposed to the governor’s plan. He said he has viewed a bunch of briefing books on the issue.

The comptroller remarked that he is going to ask tough questions on the issue when it comes before the Public Works Board. He encouraged the small gathering to “send him everything” they have and “come down and see the Board of Public Works” in Annapolis.

“If I had an IPA beer for every time I’ve gone into a Board meeting, thinking I was going to vote one way and then voting the other way, after hearing the testimony, well, I would be quite overweight,” Franchot joked.

Franchot said Maryland’s Board of Public Works “tends to be a very a fluid environment” because it is “free from the normal backroom stuff down in Annapolis.”

A Silver Spring resident told Franchot that he is “very opposed” to the governor’s beltway expansion plan but is happy to hear that Franchot is keeping an open mind. The man said that he believes Hogan has already made up his mind and that many opposing voices are not being heard.

Two Montgomery County state senators – Craig Zucker (D-Montgomery) of District 14 and Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery) of District 15 – joined Franchot’s Tuesday beer powwow.

Zucker spoke briefly, saying that the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee inserted language in Maryland’s operating budget “to create a higher level of transparency” and guaranteeing construction of the CCT.”

Others on Tuesday asked Franchot if he saw the video from the I-495/I-270 Silver Spring Town Hall that was held earlier in May, organized by Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker (D).

Franchot, who was invited to the event but did not attend, acknowledged that his staff showed him the video.

Nearly 800 people showed up on a Sunday morning to the Silver Spring Civic Building to blast Gov. Hogan’s plan to widen the beltway and to add toll lanes.

While hundreds showed up to Hucker’s rally to declare their opposition to the Hogan administration’s beltway widening plans, which could force less than 40 county residents from their homes via Eminent domain, a surprisingly small number of alternatives to Hogan’s plan were discussed to address the ongoing traffic congestion problems.

Beer in hand, state Sen. Brian Feldman pointedly noted that he represents a far-reaching legislative district – from the 270 spur in Potomac to the Frederick County border – and some of his constituents who live along I-270 may view the issue in contrast to the sentiments expressed by those who live further down county, including those who surrounded Franchot that evening.

“In the up-county part of my district, there is no bigger issue. They are desperate, and they don’t even care about the details, which is unfortunate, because it matters how you go about doing it. But they just want some action, and they will figure out the details later.”

Feldman said the politics of the issue shifts once you go further down in the county.

“Poolsville and Potomac may as well be different countries, yet I represent both communities; and, so, this is a very complicated issue… I think the view of the folks in this part of the county are slightly different than if you live up county and you’re stuck in a parking lot from 5:30 in the morning, just to get to Rockville.”

After Feldman finished speaking, one man declared, “We chose to live here and they chose to live there,” referring to up-county residents. Another down-county resident said that she does not believe that widening the highway solves the problem. Another attendee suggested that Franchot review the traffic data from 495.

Tony Hausner, a founder of Safe Silver Spring and an advocate against the governor’s traffic mitigation proposal, asked Franchot directly what his thoughts are on widening the beltway.

“I’m going to evade that,” Franchot said with a grin.

“All I can say is I gave what I think is a great quote, which is ‘if I had an IPA for every time I’ve gone into the Board with my mind made up and changed it, based on testimony, I would have drunk a tremendous amount of beer.’ And that’s all I’m going to share because I have never in my 13 years telegraphed how I’m going to vote.”

Hogan’s plan, in addition to widening the Beltways, includes adding up to four toll lanes each on I-270 to relieve traffic congestion. The plan would cost the state nothing, Hogan says, since the project would fall under a public-private partnership and companies would design and build the toll lanes, keeping the revenue collected in exchange.

Critics, though, are concerned about the environmental impact of the governor’s plan.

40 state lawmakers who represent areas along the Beltway and I-270 signed a letter earlier this month that was submitted to the Board of Public Works, requesting a completed environmental review of the governor’s proposal as well as a projection of the toll prices and any associated financial risks.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll released this week shows that 61% of Montgomery County residents support the governor’s traffic relief plan, with 48% support in Prince George’s County.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who has been openly hostile to the governor’s traffic plan, urged in a letter to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission not to grant any land for the governor’s Beltway plan.

The Board of Public Works is expected to revisit the Beltway expansion plan later this month or in June.

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