MDOT: No major changes coming for Red Line

Red LineJC06The Maryland Department of Transportation says it will listen to concerns about Baltimore’s proposed light rail Red Line but that major changes to the project aren’t coming.

“The alignment and mode selected in August 2009 after extensive stakeholder input achieves benefits comparable to the best transit projects in the country,” said Erin Henson, a transportation spokeswoman on Wednesday night. “To make major changes to the route and mode at this point would only increase the project’s overall cost or reduce ridership.

“Nonetheless, reasonable suggestions to make the project even more competitive and attractive for federal funding must be part of our on-going dialogue with stakeholders.”

The department’s response came after four state lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley on Wednesday citing “grave concerns” while pleading with the governor to overhaul the Red Line project.

The 14.1-mile, $2.6 billion dollar transit project — if kept on track — could start moving passengers from Woodlawn to East Baltimore by 2021.

Officials tout $125 million plan to improve BWI

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will spend $125 million as part of a three-year plan to expand the facility and prepare it to handle more international flights, state officials said Friday.

In a statement, Gov. Martin O’Malley and Department of Transportation Secretary James T. “Jim” Smith Jr. detailed the project, $25 million of which will be paid for by revenue expected to be generated by the state’s new gas tax.

The BWI improvement project is the latest example administration officials have provided of a project made possible by the tax increase.

The Board of Public Works is expected to consider the first of several construction contracts during its June 24 meeting.

“This development plan will support hundreds of jobs for Marylanders and increase travel, trade and business development in our state,” O’Malley said in a statement. “Together, we are expanding opportunities for growth at BWI Marshall as a convenient, efficient airport for travelers throughout the region.”

Paul J. Wiedefeld, the airport’s CEO and and executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, said in June that BWI’s growth depends on increasing international flights, especially business travel overseas. The money will pay for a new security checkpoint for domestic and international travelers, connect Concourse D and E and reconfigure gates so BWI can add more international flights.

Smith getting back into the swing of things

James T. "Jim" Smith Jr. was sworn in as Maryland's transportation secretary on Tuesday. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary James T. “Jim” Smith Jr. has found himself thrust into the government limelight for the last several weeks, and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s newest cabinet member appears to be enjoying it.

The day after being formally sworn in as transportation secretary, Smith and his agency came under questioning from Comptroller Peter Franchot, who wanted to ensure a $21 million set of contracts brought before the Board of Public Works were necessary and not just spending for the sake of spending.

Franchot had most of his questions answered by Henry M. Kay, executive director of the Maryland Transit Administration division that oversees new transit projects, including Purple Line and Red Line.

But once the comptroller’s questions were answered, Smith couldn’t help but chime in, reminding everyone in the room that he spent eight years as Baltimore County executive and didn’t waste money then. He won’t now either, Smith said, even with hundreds of millions of dollars soon to be flowing into the agency following a gas tax increase.

“We’re going to stretch these dollars as far as we can stretch them,” Smith said, pleasing Franchot, who then voted with O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp to OK the MTA contracts.

Red Line forum will try to attract private investment

Federal, state and local government officials will detail plans for Baltimore’s Red Line on Monday at a forum intended to gauge industry interest in building or operating the light rail line.

The forum at the Baltimore Convention Center — hosted by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and new Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. — is similar to an event held last month in Hanover, where Brown and others tried to gauge industry interest in building or operating the Purple Line.

The two light rail lines were leading engines behind the General Assembly‘s push to increase the gas tax this year. The increase, which won’t be fully phased in until 2016, should cover land acquisition and design of the transit lines. Federal dollars are being sought for construction, but the state still must figure out how to pay its half of construction costs.

The projects are expected to cost close to $5 billion combined.

A public-private partnership — in this context, a long-term lease deal with the state in which there is substantial capital investment by a private company in exchange for conducting day-to-day operations for state-owned property — is thought to be one way to find the needed money.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other government officials are expected to meet with industry representatives including regional, national and international transportation contractors; engineering, financial investment and insurance firms; rail vehicle manufacturers; and women and minority owned businesses.

The Red Line is expected to run along a 14.1-mile path starting in Woodlawn and ending at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore. In a statement, Brown said he expected construction to create 4,200 jobs over six years.

Despite doubts among some state and local elected officials, other officials say the Red Line is expected to open in 2021 and carry 54,000 passengers a day by 2035.

Eye Opener: Transportation secretary to be named today

Gov. Martin O’Malley is expected to make a “major transportation announcement” at 1 p.m., accord to a release sent by his office.

That announcement will be the naming of former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith as transportation secretary, according to several reports.

Here’s a few other government and politics headlines:

House unlocks ‘lockbox’ bill

House Speaker Michael E. Busch with his leadership team. (File Photo)

Heading into the final day of the General Assembly’s 90-day session, the House of Delegates had taken no action on a Senate bill designed to prevent raids on the Transportation Trust Fund.

But in a flurry of activity in the waning hours of the session on Monday, the House quickly passed a rewritten version of Senate Bill 829, which retained a key provision that would prevent transfer of money in the fund unless the governor declared an emergency and three-fifths of both houses of the legislature voted to approve the shift.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Tuesday that lawmakers took their time on the “lockbox” bill to ensure it was properly crafted. The bill had sat untouched in the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee — legislative purgatory at that late point in the session — for more than a week.

“We were looking for the right language, and we worked our way through that,” Busch said. “I think it’s a responsible way to deal with the transportation funding.”

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Gas industry lobbyist briefly returns to his roots

Buried toward the end of Tuesday’s three-hour hearing on a multimillion dollar plan to raise money for transportation projects in Maryland was one opponent who may have had a leg up on the others.

Drew Cobbs, the executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, testified in the waning minutes of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee‘s hearing on House Bill 1515, and the longtime gas industry lobbyist had more to offer than how the bill would impact his interest group — Cobbs was a senior policy analyst for the Maryland Department of Transportation for 13 years.

Harkening back to those years, Cobbs told the Senate panel that indexing Maryland’s excise tax on gasoline wouldn’t be necessary if the legislature just increased the tax every five years, as was once fairly common until the legislature — under the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening — broke the streak in 1997. Maryland’s 23.5-cent gas tax hasn’t increased since 1992.

Cobbs also added that H.B. 1515 — the consensus agreement reached among Gov. Martin O’Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. — just played catch-up and did little to address ongoing operating costs of transit.

“We have a significant wound that’s bleeding,” Cobbs told the committee. “But all we’re going to do is give a transfusion, not close the wound.”

Senate sets hearing for gas tax bill

Business leaders in Maryland support increasing the state's gas tax to improve congestion and create jobs for construction crews. (File Photo)

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee will hold a public hearing Tuesday for comprehensive legislation that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects.

The panel will also hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon for an ambitious plan to finance redevelopment of Baltimore schools. Some lawmakers say the bills have been tied together to garner support for increases in Maryland’s gas tax and transit fees in the city.

The 1 p.m. hearings were added to the committee’s schedule following a brief introduction of House Bill 1515 and House Bill 860 to the full Senate on Monday afternoon. The House passed the transportation legislation, which would increase the price of gas by about 4 cents this summer through a pair of tax increases, in a contentious, 76-63 vote Friday. The school construction plan passed 107-30.

Both bills have the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, and are expected to pass the Senate. But Republican lawmakers have vowed to speak out against the transportation plan, which would raise $3.4 billion over the next five years on the back of tax increases.

The House took just a week between its public hearing on the transportation bill and final passage, as the chamber raced toward a deadline to send bills to the Senate. Less than two weeks remain in the legislature’s regular 90-day session.

The Eye on Annapolis Podcast

The Eye on Annapolis Podcast returns with a look back at a busy weekend in the House of Delegates.

Alex and I discuss the latest on the gun control and transportation bills and whether lawmakers will be able to resolve the major sticking points in the bills in the General Assembly’s final two weeks.

We also examine the prospects of tax increment financing (better known as TIFs) and reveal the man behind the medical marijuana bill.

Enjoy.

Baltimore PR firm joins campaign for gas tax hike

A well-connected Baltimore public relations firm has joined the campaign to raise taxes and fees to pay for transportation projects in Maryland.

Kearney O’Doherty Public Affairs LLC is directing the marketing for a nonprofit coalition of labor and transportation advocates calling itself Transportation Infrastructure Now.

KO Public Affairs is the same firm that successfully led the campaign to expand casino gambling last year, representing a coalition of labor unions backed by gambling giant MGM Resorts International Inc.

Rod Easter, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, Martin G. Knott Jr., chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Corp. and Michele Whelley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, are all members of the coalition. Advertisements paid for by the group have been placed on The Baltimore Sun’s website.

The group argues that increasing the gas taxes and transit fares to pay for transportation projects would create jobs. The House of Delegates is expected to pass House Bill 1515, the transportation bill, on Friday.