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Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn. (File)

Document suggests Hogan administration would back transportation project rankings

ANNAPOLIS — Lawmakers and transportation advocates say they are confused by a Maryland Department of Transportation document that appears to signal an interest in creating a scoring system for statewide projects just weeks after the Hogan administration opposed legislation that would create such a program.

Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn testified in February and again in March against a legislative proposal that would require all transportation projects to be scored to determine funding priorities. Since then, Gov. Larry Hogan has turned the proposal into political fodder, saying that Democratic lawmakers, in retaliation for his decision to cancel the Red Line and to cut tolls, are engaged in a partisan effort to strip a Republican administration of the same authority exercised by Democratic executives.

But an eight-page draft of a Department of Transportation presentation delivered to lawmakers in the days following Rahn’s testimony suggests the agency may support such a scoring regime and that a 2014 departmental effort to create such a system is 90 percent complete and will be ready by fall.

“For all of the pushback, they think it’s a good idea,” said Del. Pamela G. Beidle, D-Anne Arundel County and sponsor of the House version of the bill. “They really pushed back against having any kid of scoring system. That was my sense of the hearing and then they turn around and say, ‘But we’ve got it. We’re ready to do this.'”

A Hogan spokesman did not comment directly on the document obtained by The Daily Record and referred all questions about it to a spokeswoman for the agency.

Rahn was not available for an interview but Erin Henson, a transportation department spokeswoman, said material was put together by agency staff and delivered to Beidle and Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel County, a sponsor of the identical Senate bill. Rahn had not seen the document or signed off on it, and Henson cautioned that the secretary may disagree with some of its contents.

“This might be what staff is thinking,” Henson said. “It’s nothing that Pete has reviewed or approved personally.”

Henson said that the document is consistent with Rahn’s earlier testimony and highlights the difficulties in developing a scoring model that allows all areas of the state to compete for limited transportation funding while integrating highways and mass transit with the needs of the state’s airports and the Port of Baltimore.

“This is not working, and we have not found a way to make it work with all modes and make it fair across the state,” Henson said. “(Rahn’s) point is that he’s been telling (legislators) that and it’s true. That’s what the document shows.”

Legislative initiative

The legislature signaled late last year an interest in changing the current process for developing the six-year consolidated transportation plan following Hogan’s decision to reduce tolls, cancel the $2.9 billion proposed Red Line light-rail system for Baltimore and allocate more money to highways and roads, particularly in rural areas of the state that Hogan said have been all but ignored over the last eight years.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. made the effort part of their legislative priorities this session.

The House of Delegates approved an amended version of Beidel’s bill two weeks ago. The bill, which was loosely based on a similar law in Virginia, now requires the department to develop a process for scoring and ranking projects using nine goals, including six that the agency already incorporates into existing planning. The department could still move forward with lower scoring projects but would have to provide written justification to lawmakers — something the governor and transportation secretary have rejected.

Gone from the current version of the bill is a requirement that would have weighted those goals and effectively established a process for the department. The revised legislation also allows for projects deemed as important for safety reasons to move forward — regardless of scoring — provided they do not add traffic capacity. Projects under $5 million would also be exempt from the law.

That version will have a hearing in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Tuesday.

Rahn twice pushed back on the legislation, saying it would ignore input from the public and local governments and effectively tie the hands of future governors. Furthermore, he said, it would mandate which projects go in what order and favor urban areas and mass transit over rural jurisdictions and highways and roads.

Rahn’s presentation included a pie chart that asserted that the formula originally proposed by the legislature, which has since been removed, would have required that 96 percent of the money available for transportation projects go to Montgomery County with the balance going to the city.

Hogan has repeatedly used the chart in social media posts aimed at generating public opposition to the proposal.

Cost information provided by the department to legislative analysts said the law would cost the agency about $6 million and require new computer systems and employees to accomplish.

Administration document

The eight-page copy of a PowerPoint presentation dated March 2016 paints a different picture and appears to signal a general agreement on the general need for a scoring system. The agency and lawmakers, however, have significant disagreements over what should be included and the agency clearly advocates for more flexibility than the legislation provides.

Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said assertions that “Secretary Rahn didn’t mention this is incorrect” and highlighted a portion of Rahn’s Feb. 17 hearing in the House Appropriations Committee.

“We do not believe as this ranking system requires, is that one size fits all. It doesn’t work for Maryland,” Rahn said at the time. “Maryland DOT would be willing to study a process that could be more appropriate to Maryland, something that would be beneficial. In fact, we have been working on a software package to attempt to do that, but the difficulties that we have found have in fact been trying to get the modes in a system that they can fairly compete for dollars.”

In that same testimony, Rahn did not elaborate on the eight-page document outlining the efforts of the department. He told the committee his agency would not likely offer amendments to the bill and on a number of occasions told lawmakers he would prefer a summer study of the issue.

The document raised questions for some transportation advocates who favor the legislature’s approach.

“I’m just baffled by this whole thing,” said Dru Schmidt Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. “They never raised this (document) with either committee, never mentioned it, never talked about it. Never said: ‘This is something that is imminent. This is here. It’s important. We believe in this. We have differences but we believe.’ But it’s never mentioned in either committee. I just can’t align this with their very, very clear statements.”