After an hour of debate, in a vote split 84-51 along party lines, the House of Delegates approved legislation to create a ranked list of priority transportation projects that would determine funding. Supporters argued that the bill would allow more transparency. Opponents said it would let the state usurp the authority of local jurisdictions and create a disparity between Maryland’s urban and rural areas.
What is certain is that this knee-jerk change to how the state determines project funding is being rushed through without adequate vetting. Both sides agreed the bill was provoked by Gov. Larry Hogan’s spiking of Baltimore’s Red Line light-rail project last summer, moving $1 billion into road projects — $160 million is slated for road and bridge projects in Frederick County. Cooler heads must prevail, which is why we’re hoping the state Senate, where the legislation heads next, will apply the brakes.
The legislation passed by the House would require the Maryland Department of Transportation to rate transportation proposals based on nine factors, including safety and security, cost-effectiveness, return on investment, environmental stewardship, access and community vitality. How those categories are scored would be left to the state’s transportation secretary to devise. However, it was those basic categories outlined in the bill that delegates opposed to the legislation felt would weigh heavily against the road and bridge projects that rural Maryland needed. Because of categories such as “environmental stewardship,” and sub-categories such as “reliability,” more points would accrue to mass transit, legislators argued.
Perhaps the biggest objection was a multiplier that takes population into account. Montgomery County’s projects would always be more heavily favored than any other jurisdiction’s, delegates said.
Lawmakers listed ongoing projects they were concerned could be adversely affected by the state’s criteria. Frederick delegation Chairwoman Kathy Afzali, a Republican who represents northern Frederick County, said that of the three county projects identified as a priority, a lane widening along Md. 194, now in the planning stages, would be in jeopardy.
The arguments raised by members of the GOP were compelling and highlighted too many rational objections to this legislation to ignore. That split partisan vote should tell you all you need to know about which areas stand to gain the most from this legislation. The Maryland General Assembly’s urban areas are represented by a large population of legislators — Democrats.
The decline in Maryland’s transportation network and fewer dollars from the federal government are cause for a more considered approach to funding critical road, bridge and mass transportation projects. We’re strongly in favor of any funding mechanism that takes into account evidence-based needs, if it’s effective. Lawmakers could have investigated similar category-based transportation ranking systems in Virginia or North Carolina.
Legislation of this import, with the potential ramifications outlined by Republicans, is worth lengthy and detailed consideration with input from every district that could be affected.
All we can say for certain about this legislation is that it’s a hastily assembled attempt to inconvenience a Republican governor in a Democratic state. As a spokesman for Hogan said, this bill is “nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with politics.”
Momentary political agitation isn’t a good enough reason to permanently upend the entire process — one about which there have been few complaints — for an untested, little-discussed system.