Rahn wants panel, not formula, to rank Md. transportation projects

His overture comes as Hogan, counties fight Democrats' plan for scoring system

Bryan P. Sears//March 1, 2016

Rahn wants panel, not formula, to rank Md. transportation projects

His overture comes as Hogan, counties fight Democrats' plan for scoring system

By Bryan P. Sears

//March 1, 2016

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s transportation secretary called on legislators to forgo the adoption of a formula to rank projects around the state in lieu of a panel that could develop a system that would allow for fair competition for state transportation dollars.

Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn made his comments during a more than two-hour House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday on House Bill 1013. The legislation, which has the backing of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., highlights the dispute between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic legislators over changes in transportation funding priorities. At the heart of that disagreement is the cancellation of the projected $2.9 billion Red Line light-rail project in Baltimore and Baltimore County in favor of roads and bridge projects, including many in more rural Republican areas.

Supporters say the legislation that would make the process more transparent by imposing a scoring system on projects similar to one used in Virginia. But Rahn said the proposed legislation is different from Virginia’s law and called on legislators to study a way to create a more Maryland-centric program.

“I don’t believe trying to take this system and tweak it to make it work for Maryland …,” Rahn said. “I don’t think we can simply graft a Virginia process onto Maryland.”

What the bill does

The bill would require the Maryland Department of Transportation to rank projects using eight evenly weighted criteria — six that are currently used by state transportation officials — including equity for disadvantaged persons, the environment, community vitality and connections to other mass transit systems. Critics worry other criteria such as cost-effectiveness, economic prosperity and improving safety are all lower-ranked and weighted and will hurt projects in rural areas.

The proposal was developed in response to concerns about how projects are funded and are built or sometimes removed from the budget, said Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“I really don’t think the citizens of Maryland trust that process,” McIntosh said.

The scores would then be used to rank projects. Those that rank lower could still move forward but would require the transportation secretary to provide written “rational explanation” for why a lower-rated project jumps the line.

“The current system lacks transparency and data-driven accountability,” said Del. Pamela G. Beidle, D-Anne Arundel County and sponsor of the bill.

“This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the Red Line or the Purple Line or Watkins Mill or a power grab as some have described it,” Beidel said.

Other legislators were not willing to cut the connections between those projects and the bill under consideration.

“They decided in Baltimore city they wanted the Red Line yet the Red Line was completely eliminated in the (budget) and Watkins Mill is being delayed,” said Aruna Miller, D-Montgomery County.

Rural projects disadvantaged?

Republican legislators say they are concerned the criteria laid out in the bill favors mass transit and projects in urban areas using a per-capita analysis that favors jurisdictions in the D.C. suburbs and the Baltimore region.

“For far too long spending on transit projects has outpaced spending on roads and bridges, and it’s a very dangerous problem,” said Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, R-Anne Arundel County and House Minority Leader.

Republican legislators said their areas were largely ignored under Democratic former Gov. Martin O’Malley. They believe they are more fairly treated under a governor of their own party and accuse Democrats of seeking changes to a system now that Hogan is sending more money to rural areas.

Beidel’s bill is similar to laws already in place in other states including Virginia and Texas. The first scores for projects in Virginia — the state most often highlighted by supporters of the bill — were released this year

But some, including Rahn, note that while Virginia uses similar criteria to those in the Maryland legislation it is not identical. The scoring system in Virginia was developed separately after passage of the law authorizing such a system.

Key differences include using a regional approach and changing the weighting system so some characteristics that might rank high in an urban area are weighted less heavily in rural areas where other concerns take precedence.

“It was the starting line not the finishing line,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

The organization that represents local governments opposes the bill.

“We’re concerned about one size fits all,” Sanderson is. “The fact is that Virginia has multiple rankings that affect different parts of the state differently. It’s deliberately not one size fits all.”



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