A series of transportation decisions made by Gov. Larry Hogan, in particular his controversial cancellation of the proposed Red Line in Baltimore, is giving rise to a debate in Annapolis over how projects are added or removed from the state’s official transportation list.
Legislators and others are expressing interest in having more oversight on transportation issues. Some transportation advocates say Hogan’s decision to mothball the $2.9 billion Red Line light-rail project put the spotlight on needed changes.
“The decision to cancel the Red Line highlighted the broken system we have here,” said Rich Hall, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and state secretary of planning under former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley. “It has never been exploited in the way Governor Hogan has exploited it.”
Hall, a supporter of the Red Line project, said he and others believe now is the time for revamping the system — specifically what he said is a muddy process by which transportation projects are added, removed or shifted on the state Department of Transportation consolidated transportation program.
The plan, which is revised annually, is meant to be a road map for spending for a six-year period.
“It’s a bit of a mystery how projects find their way into the plan or don’t find their way into the plan,” said Warren Deschenaux, executive director of the Department of Legislative Services and the legislature’s top budget analyst. “There’s no evident scoring or other objective process for choosing one project over another.”
Hall and others believe the time has come to make the program conform to a set of objective standards that will prioritize projects.
“Maryland is quite behind other states including Virginia,” Hall said.
Deschenaux worked with members of the Joint Spending Affordability Committee last month to craft recommendations to the governor that legislators hope would lead to a more objective process. Others view it as an effort to handcuff Hogan and future governors into spending money in more urban areas to the detriment of rural communities.
Sen. J.B Jennings, R-Harford and Baltimore Counties and a member of the Joint Spending Affordability Committee, said there’s really no mystery when it comes to prioritizing transportation projects — a process that begins each fall in a series of marathon public meetings around the state.
“I believe it is a transparent process and we are included and the community is included in those meetings,” said Jennings, who is also the Republican leader in the Senate. “Unfortunately, attendance is not the greatest from the community but at least they have the opportunity.”
The concerns over the six-year plan come after a number of announcements made by Hogan, who took over as governor last January. Both sides of the aisle believe the other is playing politics.
As a candidate, Hogan clearly signaled his opposition to expensive mass transit projects and his preference for roads.
Months before being elected, Hogan promised the Maryland Association of Counties he would restore state funding for local road projects that had been slashed under O’Malley.
Soon after his election, the governor-elect hired Pete Rahn, whom Hogan described as “best highway builder in the entire country.”
Not surprisingly, Hogan this summer canceled the Baltimore project.
The 14.1-mile long Red Line proposal was designed to connect Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center with Woodlawn in Baltimore County. Hogan characterized the project as “a boondoggle.”
Rahn said the $1 billion tunnel under the city was the proposed project’s fatal flaw.
At the same time, Hogan announced that he would pump $2 billion into roads and highways around the state, including nearly $400 million in additional money for city roads over six years.
Hogan also announced an effort to revamp the bus system in core areas, including the city.
The NAACP and ACLU have filed a federal complaint, calling the decision to kill the Red Line discriminatory.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the decision hurts black residents of the city and raised the specter of politics.
“When you take a look at where the transportation dollars are most needed and take a look at Hogan administration spending, these things don’t jibe,” Rawlings-Blake said during an appearance on WBAL radio. “Where people need transportation the most, these dollars have been taken away and now they’ve been divided up in Republican counties.”
Making smart investments
Earlier this year, legislators held a hearing on the issue of government transparency including how transportation projects are addressed.
“The Red Line put a fine point on the issue, but it’s not the only reason behind the concern,” said Hall, who also spoke at the hearing. “I’m a firm believer in the ‘One Maryland’ approach. All parts of the state have needs that need to be addressed. I think we can set up goals and measurements that help us do that.”
In mid-December, members of the spending affordability committee began to establish a series of objective standards by adopting a recommendation to draft rules to “emphasize projects that reduce congestion and have a significant economic impact and give those projects priority over those that seem to find their way in to (consolidated transportation plans),” Deschenaux said.
But defining those impacts may be a sticking point with legislators from rural and urban areas, who likely will be in conflict.
Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery County and vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said the spending affordability committee recommendation was aimed at “providing guidance to (the governor) over where we want to invest state dollars and we want to invest in things where we have the most significant (economic) impact for the state of Maryland and the biggest traffic reduction for the state of Maryland.”
But other members said those definitions could too easily weight spending toward more urban areas at the expense of rural areas.
“You’re going to pit certain parts of the state against other parts of the state, and with all due respect the rural parts of the state will never get another road built,” said Sen. George Edwards, R-Western Maryland and a member of the spending affordability committee.
Edwards said any effort to create an objective standard will also have to give consideration to how the proposed projects will affect individual areas of the state.
“I want someone to define for me what significant economic impact is,” said Edwards. “That meaning is different in different parts of the state. If you’re going to build a road for economic development purposes or impact — I assume were talking about jobs. In my part of the state, if you create 2,000 or 5,000 jobs, that’s a lot of jobs. It’s a significant impact. In Montgomery County, it’s peanuts.”
Next week in the Annapolis Summit series: Environmental issues.