Local transportation priorities for Maryland’s 23 counties may not be in immediate jeopardy despite a letter sent in the last week from state officials suggesting some would not be considered for funding.
A top Department of Transportation official, in an interview Thursday, contradicted the letter sent to leaders of Maryland’s counties and said information sought as the result of a contentious bill passed this year would not be required and would not be used to penalize local governments.
“We’re going to have continuous conversations with local governments and if something is misconstrued or misunderstood, we’ll fix it,” Deputy Secretary James F. Ports Jr. said when asked about the apparent contradiction.
Local governments around Maryland began receiving letters from Ports in the last week seeking detailed information regarding local transportation projects that hope to garner state aid.
In the letter, Ports asks for roughly a dozen studies on issues such as environmental impact, traffic congestion and economic impacts that were part of House Bill 1013, controversial legislation vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan that includes a project-based scoring system. The legislature overrode the veto all before the session ended in April.
The strongly worded letter warns local governments that, because of the law, any low-scoring projects “will be in jeopardy and could be de-funded.”
“Any major transportation project requested that is not accompanied by the required information in this letter by August 15 will not be considered” in the transportation plans that cover fiscal years 2017-2022, Ports’ letter concludes.
But in a 45-minute interview Thursday, Ports repeatedly described the information requested as not being a requirement on local governments and said failing to provide it would have no negative impact on decisions. He compared it to a job applicant providing as much detailed information as possible in order to put the best foot forward in order to obtain an interview.
“I would think that the locals would want to provide us the most information they can so that we’re best able to score their projects appropriately,” Ports said.
When asked about the contradiction to the letter, Ports said he stood by his comments in the interview. The deputy secretary said that while counties had not been officially notified that the information was no longer required, it would be part of ongoing conversations with local leaders in the days leading up to the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City later this month.
‘We remain perplexed’
Legislative leaders Thursday criticized the language in Ports’ letter in their own correspondence to the deputy secretary.
“We respectfully disagree that the act places any such requirements on local government and hope to clear up any confusion that may exist,” Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Howard and Baltimore Counties and chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee, wrote in a letter.
No regulations containing a project-based scoring system have been proposed by MDOT in the month since the act took effect on July 1, the pair wrote.
“Thus, we remain perplexed how MDOT can require exhaustive project information from counties in the next seven business days — all while claiming that legislative requirements of the act may ultimately may lead to county transportation priorities being defunded.”
Backers of the legislation said it will provide public transparency to a closed process for funding transportation projects in the wake of the cancellation by Hogan of the Red Line light rail project.
The bill requires the state to devise a scoring system by January 1, 2017 that will be used to rank projects on a number of factors. Future administrations would still have the freedom, Democratic sponsors said, to jump low-scoring projects over higher scoring ones but the state would have to provide written explanations for those jumps.
The bill, based on a similar but not identical Virginia law, was drafted after Hogan canceled the anticipated city transportation line – a decision that still rankles some legislators and city officials – and began moving more transportation money for projects in more rural, and Republican, areas of the state.
Hogan described the bill as usurpation by the legislature that would weaken executive branch authority and upend how the previous governors have made transportation decisions.
At least one sponsor of the bill questioned the timing of the letter, saying it was meant to continue a political spat.
“The letter seems unnecessary,” said Del. Pam Beidle, D-Anne Arundel County. “The bill doesn’t even go into effect until next year. It appears the letter is just meant to create unnecessary hysteria.”
Ports said the new law requires the department to begin scoring all projects not in the construction phase as of July 1, 2016.
“I know the legislature didn’t write the bill so it makes sense they might not understand it,” Ports said. “Legislation has consequences.”
He described the legislation as “highly technical and complicated” and said it combines new law with deadlines in existing law that must be met.
“If we don’t score the projects from this year that would leave them in limbo,” Ports said. “What happens to those projects?”
Some county officials say letter confirms their worst fears and worry the new law will put the kibosh on road projects.
“This is a horrible piece of legislation,” said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican. “This letter is a manifestation of that. The county executive is concerned that all projects that have already been announced may now not get funded.”
Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the letters have raised concerns among local government leaders across the state.
“It’s certainly ruffled feathers among the county community,” said Sanderson, whose organization opposed the legislation.
Sanderson said the group opposes any legislation that would shift state functions, such as the studies mentioned in the Ports’ letter, to county government. Additionally, he said the timeline for completion — roughly two weeks — was not feasible.
“Nine or 10 days is a pretty short turn around, most counties would have difficulty doing this in 90 days,” Sanderson said. “Large and small, rural and suburban counties share these concerns.”