An effort to repeal a recently enacted law that requires the state to score and rank local transportation projects will be part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s legislative package when the 2017 session begins in less than a month.
Hogan speaking on Friday said he would include a repeal of the law to fulfill a promise he made earlier in the year to overturn a veto override by the General Assembly earlier this year.
“Absolutely,” Hogan said when asked if a repeal of the Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act would be part of his legislative package.
The law has been the subject of a political firefight since it was introduced in the 2016 session as a response to Hogan canceling the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project in Baltimore and increasing funding to highway and rural road projects. The governor said rural project had been neglected under former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Supporters of the new law say it is necessary to improve transparency and better explain how local transportation projects are selected and funded by the state.
“I don’t think there is going to be a repeal,” said Del. Pam Beidle, D-Anne Arundel County and sponsor of the 2016 law.
Beidle said any effort to tweak the law would require the governor to engage with the legislature. She compared it with the successful 2015 effort to tweak the controversial stormwater management law — an effort Hogan called a repeal, too.
“That’s how we work together,” Beidle said. “Drawing a line in the sand is not how we work together.”
The legislature last week delayed implementation of two pages of rules that put the law into effect. Lawmakers claim that Hogan administration officials intentionally drafted the regulations poorly, restricting what could have been a flexible scoring system for their own political purposes.
The legislative hold, on its own, will not prevent Hogan from moving forward with the new rules, but it will prevent them from going into effect until Feb. 10.
Some supporters of the law say they hope it will provide an opportunity to work out a compromise with the governor.
“We’ve extended an olive branch to the governor and (Transportation) Secretary (Pete) Rahn, seeking their ideas since they’ve expressed discomfort with the legislation,” said Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery and co-chairman of the joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee. “We haven’t heard back.”
Hogan and his senior officials counter that the law usurps executive authority and eliminates an established system that was already transparent, flexible and took into account the priorities of local governments around the state.
“It’s been the process for 34 years, and I’ve certainly not heard any complaints,” Rahn said.
The proposed regulations force him to use specific measures and to push transit projects in densely populated areas of the state to the top of the list and squeeze projects for more rural areas down to the bottom.
“I don’t like these regulations,” Rahn said. “These are bad regulations, but they are the result of a bad law.”
Those regulations will be put into effect on Feb. 10, the secretary said.
Rahn said there’s only one solution.
“Repeal the law and replace it,” Rahn said, adding that repeal must come first.
“It it’s repealed early in the session then there would be an opportunity to look at (replacing),” Rahn said.
Debate over scoring
The legislature overrode Hogan’s veto before the end of the 2016 session. Since then, the politics of the issue have taken over, with transportation officials initially telling local governments they were responsible for detailed analysis of each request and that any failure to provide those reports would result in projects not being scored at all.
Later, the department rescinded that demand after local governments and legislators protested and got an advisory letter from the Office of the Attorney General stating that the state was implementing the law before it was required to do so.
Since then, Hogan has called for a repeal of the law. His staff has gone so far as to guarantee the repeal would happen.
“We’re going to kill the roadkill bill,” Hogan told reporters earlier this year following a speech before members of the Maryland Association of Counties.
On Thursday, Hogan told The Daily Record that he will introduce the repeal measure as part of his legislative priorities for the session.
The governor has compared the effort to what he describes as his success at repealing the so-called rain tax.
But the legislature killed Hogan’s stormwater management repeal bill within days of an initial hearing. Lawmakers instead passed a bill that imposed stricter requirements on local governments, requirements that were opposed by the association of counties and cheered by environmentalists.
Transportation advocates, including Brian O’Malley, president and chief executive officer of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said the current law hasn’t been properly implemented by Hogan and Rahn and doesn’t need to be repealed.
“The whole idea is to get better projects and make sure we’re getting the best use of scarce taxpayer dollars,” said O’Malley, the head of the Baltimore-based nonprofit transportation advocacy group. “My question is, if there’s something that the Maryland Department of Transportation wants to do but can’t because of the law, they need to explain why.”
O’Malley and other say they would support altering the current law in an effort to improve it. One idea is to make it more similar to the Virginia law that was the basis for what the Maryland legislature passed.
But Rahn points out that the Virginia law provides more flexibility and divides the state into regions so that rural areas can better compete with more populous areas of the state when it comes to transportation dollars.
“But Maryland has to look at what works best for Maryland,” O’Malley said.
Other transportation issues to watch include:
- County and municipal governments will again seek a permanent increase to state aid for local road projects paid for with highway user revenues. Through the years, that funding has been cut by the state by about 95 percent, leaving local governments scrambling to find ways to pay for projects with fewer dollars. In recent years the state has provided a series of one-time increases, but local officials will be seeking a more permanent solution to return the funding to pre-recession levels.
- The inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump could bring additional money for transportation projects if the new president can make good on a plan to repatriate $2.6 billion in offshore corporate profits. Gov. Larry Hogan told a Southern Maryland radio station last month that such a program could pave the way for replacing the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge connecting Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. Rahn called the proposal “a wish.”
- Transportation advocates will likely seek to eliminate or reduce the state’s requirement to recover at least 35 percent of the operating costs of bus, light rail, and metro subway services through fares. A bill sponsored by Del. Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore City, died in committee last year.
- A state work group has been looking at the issue of self-driving cars in the state. Some legislators also are exploring the issue. State transportation officials are urging a more cautious approach in order to allow the industry to work out issues related to infrastructure requirements.