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Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Director Jim Ports. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

MDOT has ‘no interest in implementing’ new law, for now

Ports reverses department's previous stance after county officials' protest

OCEAN CITY — Maryland counties will not have to worry about the implementation of a new law requiring local requests for state transportation aid to be scored and ranked — at least for now.

That’s the word in a new letter from Maryland Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary James F. Ports Jr. that started landing in county government mailboxes around the state on Thursday afternoon.

In the letter, the third Ports has sent to counties in two weeks, the deputy secretary cites a recent advisory letter written by the counsel to the General Assembly. Ports maintains that the law requires the department to score projects this year but he also says, based on advice released last week, that the department will defer for this year.

“Based on this new opinion and multiple statements by legislators, apparently, MDOT now has the discretion when to implement this new law and the department has decided to delay the requirement until the (fiscal) 2018” plan, Ports wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Record.

“MDOT does not believe this new law reflects sound transportation policy and vigorously objects to its use to prioritize transportation projects,” Ports writes. “Therefore, if the attorney general for the General Assembly and members of the legislature have no interest in implementing their new laws at this time, neither does MDOT.”

A spokeswoman last week said the transportation department received different advice from it’s own attorney but, unlike the letter to the General Assembly, that letter was not released to the media.

The letter was sent just as 2,500 state and county officials were set to descend on Ocean City for the annual Maryland Association of Counties summer conference. Transportation officials were scheduled to meet with local government leaders in individual meetings to talk about local requests and most likely the effects of the scoring system passed by the General Assembly, vetoed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, and then reinstated by a legislative override of that veto.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the association that represents the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City, said the issue would be a major topic of concern.

“Counties are glad that this process isn’t going to lead to good projects being canceled this year,” Sanderson said Wednesday. “Now, the state and counties need to plan together how this should work for next year and beyond. This isn’t over. There’s still a lot of work ahead.”

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, the incoming president of the association of counties, said the use of the scoring system this year amounted to an attempt to get out of promises Hogan has made to counties with regard to increasing state aid for highways.

“The General Assembly’s transportation scoring bill is a reasonable effort to depoliticize Governor Hogan’s decisions to fund roads in areas where he gains the most votes,” said Kamenetz. “It is non-binding and advisory only, but encourages investment in roads that truly ease traffic congestion and stimulate economic growth. Governor Hogan is using the issue to cover up a significant shortfall in the transportation budget, caused in great part by his short-sighted decision to symbolically reduce tolls.”

In his latest letter, Ports goes on to tell county officials that they will still be required to submit information on 12 different areas related to each request, including impacts on congestion, the environment and economic development, for next year’s transportation funding plan.

County officials and Democratic legislators who supported the bill passed this year were rankled by two previous missives from Ports.

The first demanded counties provide the information within roughly 10 days, saying it was required and that counties which failed to do so by Aug. 15 would not have their requests considered.

Some counties balked, saying they lacked the ability to comply with the demand in the time allowed.

Ports, in an interview with The Daily Record, contradicted the letter and later said the choice of wording could have been better.

A second letter, just days before the Aug. 15 deadline, informed counties that state had done a preliminary scoring and that most projects around the state scored too low to qualify for any of the $917 million available in the proposed plan. In fact, the Ports wrote that just seven projects would be funded. Baltimore City and Baltimore County received no funding in the most recent version of the six-year plan.

The state has yet to formalize regulations setting up the formula it will use for scoring projects. It is not required to do so until January, but legislators and other officials said they had never seen a state agency attempt to implement a law such as this without first drafting the regulations.

The department has not yet released the raw scores for each request or a copy of the formula they used despite multiple requests from reporters.