Representatives from more than 100 companies packed a room Wednesday to hear details on ambitious plans to widen major highways in Maryland, while transportation officials said they will offer private companies unprecedented leeway in carrying out plans reduce congestion.

In an effort to “go big and go fast,” officials said they will evaluate proposals from the private sector based on companies’ ability to bring innovative solutions to the region’s congestion problem, and could award contracts for the work by 2020.

MDOT hosted the industry forum in Linthicum to offer more details on the Traffic Relief Plan, which calls for a public-private partnership (often known as a P3) to widen I-495, I-270, and I-295 in Maryland. Under the plan, express toll lanes would be added to the Capitol Beltway and I-270. A private contractor would design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the new express lanes, but also collect the toll revenue.

The state is also talking with the National Park Service about transferring I-295 (the Baltimore-Washington Parkway) to the state, though Wednesday’s forum focused solely on the I-495 and I-270 portions of the project.

The forum attracted about 530 registered attendees from more than 100 companies from a wide range of industries, including construction, engineering, finance, and transportation. Officials said they expect stiff competition for involvement in the $9 billion effort.

Company officials mingle during a meeting to discuss plans to widen I-495 and I-270 in Maryland.

Company officials mingle during a meeting to discuss plans to widen I-495 and I-270 in Maryland.

Tim Lemke

“What we are asking of you is to bring the best of your best, your absolute ‘A’ Team,” said MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn. “You all should be hitting this out of the park, and you should be making it very difficult for us to make a selection.”

Cautious Excitement From Industry

Forum attendees said they were enthusiastic about the plan, but wanted more information. Several industry representatives said they were anxiously waiting for the state to secure financial advisors, environmental advisors, and legal advisors.

One executive with a large conglomerate who has developed similar projects in the United States and overseas said “this is about as good as it gets” in terms of the project’s size and scope. But, he said past history suggests that political and legal hurdles will arise. He pointed to Maryland’s Purple Line rail service, which was first proposed in the 1990s but endured various political and legal challenges before an official groundbreaking this past August.

“This is incredibly exciting, but the devil is in the details,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of his company. “We don’t have a lot of information right now.”

MDOT said it will begin one-on-one meetings with potential private sector partners in January.

“We are on a very, very tight timeframe,” project director Lisa Choplin said. “If you are seriously interested in the project, we want to hear from you.”

Going Big

Maryland officials said that the state’s traffic problems in the Washington-Baltimore region are severe enough to require bold action. In theory, officials said, the state could widen major highways on a piecemeal basis, but prefers to get it all done at once.

“The idea of an incremental approach simply can’t work for Maryland,” Rahn said. “When you have big problems, you need big solutions. I don’t want to just do something. I want to do something that will be a ‘wow’.”

MDOT said it expects to have a sizable dedicated staff focused on the Traffic Relief Plan, with more than 150 employees and consultants working out of dedicated office space in Baltimore.

Officials said proposals will be evaluated based on overall value, but that the state is not committed to going with the lowest bidder.

“We need to think innovatively and think differently,” said Greg Slater, administrator of the Maryland State Highway Administration.

MDOT earlier this year sent out a Request for Information to the the private sector, and responses are due on December 20. Companies are not required to respond to the RFI to bid for contracts relating to the road widening project.

The agency said it hopes to have a draft Request for Proposals (RFP) next year, with completed RFP and environmental impact statement by 2019 and an approved agreement with a partner by 2020.

Toll Rates TBD

It’s anyone’s guess at this point what toll rates might be on the proposed express lanes. MDOT officials said they’d likely be set by the concessionaire. However, it’s likely that toll rates will differ depending on location, because certain areas of Maryland are more likely than others to accept tolls. Thus, Rahn said, “rich sections” of the Beltway will subsidize “not-so-rich” sections.

Officials did insist that existing lanes on the Beltway and I-270 will remain free for all drivers.

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