DALLAS – Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly have proposed a new process to evaluate transportation projects that would limit the governor's authority to select the ones that will be funded.
Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said at a news conference on Tuesday that the review would result in a more transparent selection process and ensure that limited state funds go to the right projects.
The Democrats' four-bill transportation package would create a process to screen and rank transportation projects, based on eight criteria that include their potential to reduce congestion and boost economic development. It would also direct the Maryland Transportation Authority to begin the process of replacing a 75-year-old, two-lane bridge over the Potomac.
The governor could direct funding to projects that do not get a high score, but would have to explain the decision when presenting the annual comprehensive transportation plan, Miller said.
"People don't mind paying for road improvements or improved transit as long as the funding goes to reducing congestion and commute times, getting cars off the road, and creating jobs and economic development opportunities," he said. "Getting rid of the mystery of how, why, and where roads get built in Maryland will only increase citizen confidence in the process."
Busch said the review legislation (Senate Bill 908 and House Bill 1013) is a reaction to the decision by Gov. Larry Hogan in June--two months after the 2015 legislature adjourned--to pull funding from the proposed $3 billion Red Line light rail project in Baltimore and shift $1.4 billion to highways. Hogan also reduced the state's contribution to the $2 billion Purple Line rail project near Washington, D.C., which will be financed as a public-private partnership.
"After session we found out [that the governor did not invest the money] where the job creation needs to take place, where people need to get back and forth to the workplace, where the growth of the state is," Busch said.
"There was no discussion, no collaboration," he said. "They waited to the end of the session to put forward their plan without any input from the General Assembly."
Hogan, a Republican, was elected governor in 2014 in an upset after pledging to reduce state spending on transit and focus more funding on highway projects. Democrats control the General Assembly, with 33 of the 47 Senate seats and a 90-50 edge in the House.
Matt Clark, a spokesman for Hogan, said Tuesday the governor consulted with local leaders on critical infrastructure needs before releasing his six-year transportation proposal last year.
"Today's thinly veiled power grab is a reckless attempt by legislators to weaken the role of county executives and other local authorities in order to drown the state's crucial investments in roads, bridges and transit projects into the bilge of Annapolis politics and lobbying," Clark said.
"If the leadership in the General Assembly were sincerely interested in oversight of Maryland's transportation network, they would have intervened to stop the previous administration from stealing $1 billion from the Transportation Trust Fund at a time when the state's roads and bridges were crumbling," he said. "Instead, the legislature took no action."
Maryland transit officials are expected to soon announce the selection of the private partner for the Purple Line project. Four international teams submitted financial proposals in December.
The selected concessionaire would have five years to complete the 16-mile system and then would operate and maintain it for 30 years. The latest estimated cost of the Purple Line is $2.16 billion, but the actual cost won't be known until the private partner is selected.