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Analysis: Were two Baltimore funding requests one too many?

Port Covington, CSX projects sought big chunk of available federal funds

Maryland’s decision to seek roughly 28 percent of the funds available this year from federal FASTLANE grants for two Baltimore projects, may have contributed to both applications being rejected.

The state requested about $231 million of an available $800 million from U.S. Department of Transportation FASTLANE grants. The state planned to use to the money to improve access from Interstate 95 to Port Covington and to expand the Howard Street Tunnel used by CSX to more efficiently move freight.

Essentially, the two proposals were competing against each other as well as the 210 additional project requests — totaling $9.8 billion — submitted to the federal department from across the country.

“The Department conducted a rigorous review process to choose projects that will have significant regional and national impacts by reducing congestion, expanding capacity, using innovative technology, improving safety, or moving freight more efficient, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation said in an email. “Due to funding limitations, the Department was only able to fund a small percentage of the excellent, eligible applications.”

Add in the politics of a presidential election year, in which Maryland has a Republican governor in the last year of a Democratic presidency, and the projects may have had several factors working against it.

Not everyone is buying the argument that submitting both projects to be considered for the grant funds this year was a mistake.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state backed both applications simultaneously because officials saw them as complementary in that they would bring increased economic development to the Baltimore area.

“We saw both of these working together,” Henson said.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Business Committee, also said it made sense to go after the available federal funding.

“I don’t think there was any strategic error in going after both of them,” Fry said.

Although FASTLANE funds certainly aren’t the only pot of federal money available to help with these projects, they are available for the next five years. The Hogan administration has made it clear it intends to support applications for the grants again.

“Given the considerable impact these projects will have on the state, the Hogan Administration will seek Fastlane federal funding again next year in order to ensure that these projects are completed,” according to an emailed statement from a Hogan spokesman.

The rejection of the application by Sagamore Development Co., which sought $76 million, may have the largest impact, at least over the short term. Marc Weller, Sagamore’s president, issued a statement saying the rejection makes it even more important the firm receive the $535 million in public financing from Baltimore to show local government is supporting the project.

Sagamore officials argue they need the funds to do infrastructure work associated with its proposed $5.5 billion overhaul of 260 acres of industrial land in South Baltimore.

The company said it needs to start construction in 2017 to accommodate the growth of Under Armour. The Baltimore-based athletic apparel maker, whose CEO Kevin Plank backs Sagamore, plans to independently build a 3.9-million-square-foot global headquarters on the peninsula.

The immediate consequences of having the $155 million application for the Howard Street Tunnel rejected may not be as clear. But business leaders have argued for years the $425 million project needs keep the Port of Baltimore competitive by allowing trains with double-stacked shipping containers to move through the city.

“It’s certainly a problem you would like to put behind you as soon as possible,” Fry said.

The rejection of the funds has provided an opportunity for some Democrats to criticize political opponents.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, raised the possibility that a decision by Hogan, a Republican, to turn down federal dollars for the proposed $2.9 billion Red Line light rail line through Baltimore negatively impacted these projects not receiving funds.

“I hope that when Governor Hogan walked away from $900 million in federal funding for the Red Line — more than all of this year’s FASTLane grants combined — he didn’t do irreparable damage to Maryland’s ability to compete for discretionary federal transportation awards in the future,” Cummings said in an emailed statement.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is finishing her final term in that office, attacked congressional Republicans for not adequately funding infrastructure projects.

“USDOT’s decision is disappointing. Both projects are job creators in Maryland. In the past, transportation has been a bipartisan issue. Republicans need to help put more funds in the federal transportation budget. Democrats can’t do it alone. More investment in infrastructure would increase safety, reduce gridlock and create jobs,” Mikulski said.