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Transportation scoring system freezes out Baltimore City, County

A controversial new law supporters claim will improve public understanding of how transportation projects are paid for by the state but which Gov. Larry Hogan said would cause many projects to go unfunded appears to have claimed its first casualties — Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Maryland Department of Transportation Sec. James F. Ports Jr. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Maryland Department of Transportation Sec. James F. Ports Jr. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Officials in Baltimore City and Baltimore County both received letters dated Aug. 9 stating that neither jurisdiction would be eligible for any of the more than $917.1 million the state will set aside for local transportation projects over the next six years. The letters, signed by state Transportation Deputy Secretary James F. Ports Jr., come five days before a deadline for all jurisdictions to provide supporting detail the state said would aid in ranking the projects.

But Ports’ new letter shows the city and county both would be ineligible for money under the scoring system. Ports said his agency must use the new system even though the department has yet to formally propose regulations that would establish such a system.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation could not immediately answer questions about the scoring system that was used or provide a copy of the formula.

The letter notes that the department would be willing to re-score projects if the jurisdictions provide the additional information requested earlier this month. In that letter, Ports requested 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.

Lawmakers and an association that represents Maryland counties both noted that the law, which took effect on July 1, doesn’t require projects to be scored until next year. The state has not yet written the regulations it will use to generate the rankings. Those aren’t due until January.

But Ports last week said the law does require the department to score projects that are not i the construction phase now. He blamed lawmakers for not understanding the bill or how it worked.

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.

Ports’ letter last week said the data was required and that failure to provide it would eliminate projects from consideration. Ports in a subsequent interview said the data was not required and would not result in projects not being considered but said a lack of requested data could potentially hurt the ranking of those requests.

Legislative leaders last week took issue with how the agency was implementing the new law.

“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.”

The letter from Ports was met with a harsh reception from Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz.

“Marylanders continue to sit in the worst traffic in the country,” Kamenetz said. “Reducing congestion on the (Baltimore) beltway requires state funding, and we expect Governor Hogan to fulfill his responsibility.”

When asked if county officials had any understanding of the scoring system used to rank the projects, Kamenetz’s chief of staff, Don Mohler, said: “No.”

Baltimore County officials last week sent a letter to Ports saying it does not have the ability to do the work and that a new law does not bar that county’s requests from being considered for funding.