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05.12.15 BALTIMORE, MD- From left, Brian O'Malley, Central Maryland Transportaion Alliance; Elise Bruner, Blue Water Baltimore; Steve Holt, CPHA; and Shannon Frede, Red Line Now; holding a banner supporting the Red Line in 2015. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz).

Democrats seek more control of Md. transportation decisions

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Larry Hogan’s reprioritizing transportation spending, including the cancellation of the multibillion-dollar Red Line project in Baltimore, has some state legislators pushing for changes.

The proposed legislation is the latest battle over transportation spending that started last summer, when Hogan announced the cancellation of the Baltimore light-rail project, foregoing $900 million in federal funds and angering some Democratic legislators who voted two years ago in favor of a controversial plan to increase the state gas tax because the money was meant to help pay for expensive, mass transportation projects.

“The fact of the matter is that under the previous governor we had the opportunity to work and collaborate in putting forth our suggestions along with the administration to come up with an agreement on where the transit dollars and the transportation dollars ought to be spent,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. “Under the current arrangement, there was no discussion, no collaboration.”

Busch, along with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and other Democratic legislators rolled out Tuesday what they said could be a more transparent process as one of four transportation-related priorities for the current session.

Under their proposals, projects included in the state’s six-year transportation plan would be graded and ranked on a variety of categories, including economic and environmental impact, safety and relief of traffic congestion. The bill is modeled after a similar legislation in Virginia.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel County and lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said that despite meetings, how a project is added to the list, moves up in priority or is removed is often a mystery.

“The administration is the one that has control of putting the projects in there,” said DeGrange.

Hogan’s decision to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line project cut off the millions of dollars in additional money that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties would need to contribute to build the proposed Purple Line project.

Simultaneously, the governor announced he would spend $2 billion, including $1.3 billion in new money, on roads and highways and bridge safety across the state over the next six years.

Rural skepticism

Also during the summer, Hogan announced a reduction in tolls but in doing so may have delayed or cancelled a proposed replacement for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge that connects southern Maryland to Virginia.

Republicans, especially those in rural areas, are skeptical about the motivations behind the so-called transparency plan and say it would once again set up a system where rural areas are ignored in favor of larger, urban population centers.

“If we’re going to do something, it’s got to be fair,” said Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Western Maryland.

A Hogan spokesman said the bill is driven by politics rather than policy.

“Today’s thinly veiled power grab is a reckless attempt by legislators to weaken the role of county executives and other local authorities in order to drown the state’s crucial investments in roads, bridges and transit projects into the bilge of Annapolis politics and lobbying,” said Matt Clark.

Under the current system, transportation officials travel the state holding a series of meetings with the public and also with local officials to assess transportation needs.

“If the leadership in the General Assembly were sincerely interested in oversight of Maryland’s transportation network, they would have intervened to stop the previous administration from stealing $1 billion from the Transportation Trust Fund at a time when the state’s roads and bridges were crumbling,” Clark said. “Instead, the legislature took no action.”

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said reductions in tolls have placed the replacement of the Nice Bridge, a two-lane bridge over the Potomac that was opened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a precarious position.

“Everyone loved the fact that there was a toll decrease but the consequences of the toll decrease meant that any planning for the Harry Nice bridge came to an end,” Middleton said.

Middleton’s bill would prohibit the state from spending money on a resurfacing the bridge and require the governor to begin setting aside money in a special fund to complete the replacement of the bridge by 2030.

Also included in the package are bills that would create an authority to oversee the Maryland Transit Administration with members appointed by the governor, the Senate President and Speaker of the House and leaders of jurisdictions served by the agency.

Another bill would double the tax credit for businesses where employees utilize mass transit or ride-sharing services. The bill proposes to increase the credit from $50 to $100.