ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s transportation secretary told lawmakers that a law meant to promote transparency in how the state funds local transportation projects is irreparably broken and should be scrapped.
Pete K. Rahn made his comments Friday in response to questions from legislators concerned about two pages of regulations drafted by the Department of Transportation. Those rules are meant to guide the implementation of a new transportation project scoring system.
Democratic lawmakers say the law increases transparency. Rahn and Gov. Larry Hogan argue it would send all of the money to large urban jurisdictions and to transit projects rather than roads.
“I think the regulations are bad,” Rahn told a reporter before speaking with the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review. “A bad bill results in bad regulations. I believe if there were a way to fix this, we would have done it in these regulations.”
Instead, Rahn told lawmakers that the regulations were biased in favor of high population areas such as Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and toward transit projects.
“Frankly, I don’t think it is the department’s job to save the legislature from its bad law,” Rahn said.
But lawmakers pushed back, arguing that the state failed to use flexibility in the law to develop a comprehensive and transparent system of funding transportation projects around the state.
“If you feel it’s unfair, it’s my opinion that you didn’t take the steps to make the most of the bill,” Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard County, said during an exchange with Rahn. “If there are places that could be tweaked to address some of the concerns that you have, we would be willing to look at that. We want this to work.”
Rahn rejected the offer.
“This bill is well beyond tweaking as a solution,” Rahn said. “It’s a repeal.”
The regulations establish a nine-category scoring system that considers safety, the environment, economic effects, return on investment and local priorities. The total score — 900 is the maximum for any one project — is then weighted based on the total population in the jurisdiction where the project is located. More populous areas that make up a larger percentage of state’s population would result in a heavier weighting of the raw score.
The weighting system added by the state Department of Transportation, however, mirrors a legislative proposal that was opposed by the Maryland Association of Counties and was ultimately removed from the final bill by the state Senate.
Earlier this year, Rahn and Republicans criticized the bill for being too prescriptive in how projects were weighted and scored. The end result, they said then, would force all of the money into high population areas and into transit projects.
Lawmakers removed those requirements from the law and pointed out the state can move lower scoring projects to the top of the list by simply providing a written explanation for the move.
Rahn said the option would mean his department would write 200 letters.
In the end, the committee cannot kill the regulations but it can delay them for a time. Transportation officials said they expect the new rules to go into effect no later than early January and be used to score projects starting next summer.
Maryland’s law is loosely based on a 2014 Virginia law meant to provide a data-driven and transparent process for scoring and prioritizing local transportation requests. Virginia’s law is implemented through 125-page package of regulations that divides the state into regions and scores projects for funding in its six-year transportation plan.
But Maryland’s new law will be guided by just two pages of regulations. Supporters of the law say Hogan and Rahn crafted rules designed to deliver worst-case scenario results.
Scores released in the fall provided $917 million to just seven projects. The state has since said it will not use that system this year but will implement the project scoring this summer.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore and co-chair of the committee, said he hoped there would be an effort by the department see if it could craft new regulations that would move Maryland closer to the Virginia law or see “if (the legislature) needs to reconfigure the law.”
Rosenberg said he and other legislators believe the department and other interested groups will meet before the end of the year to determine if changes require legislative action.
Rosenberg asked Rahn to get back to the committee by Dec. 9 with a determination about whether the Virginia model could be incorporated into the state’s current law.
“I believe we would have to start with a repeal,” Rahn said, adding that the Virginia law would not be compatible with current law.
“But we don’t end with repeal,” Rosenberg said.
Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, called the regulations “a missed opportunity” to create a flexible system that considered and weighted different concerns by region.
“Just imagine if the system before you wasn’t a 900-point system but a 2,000-point system,” Sanderson said, adding later that the association, which did not support the original bill, does not support the proposed regulations.
County officials said the proposed regulations weren’t consistent with the law. Others said they are hoping to fix the law in the coming session.
“We would absolutely appreciate the opportunity to come back to the table to make this as fair and equitable as possible,” said Barbara Zektick, associate director of the organization.