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Five questions for Transportation Sec'y James T. Smith Jr.

Sworn in earlier this month, James T. Smith Jr. is Maryland's 13th transportation secretary. At an age when many people have begun or are contemplating retirement, Smith, 71, is taking the helm of a 10,000-employee agency that oversees highways, bridges, tunnels, BWI Marshall Airport, the port of Baltimore, the Motor Vehicle Administration and mass transit. He said he took the job because of an infusion of $4.4 billion tied to passage this year of a comprehensive transportation revenue bill and because he has long known and admired many of the professionals who now work for him.

It seems like Baltimore's Red Line light rail project is on the cusp of becoming shovel-ready. What's the timeline?

We have $170 million from the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act programmed for final design and right-of-way acquisition. We're proceeding with that. With the feds, we're going to ask them for full funding in the upcoming year and we're moving ahead to make the project a reality. You ask for all and you hope to get as close to all as you can. We have some pretty heavy hitters as supporters, so I'm optimistic. Whether we get it next year or whether we get it the following year, that's not as important. We asked for it this year because we wanted to get it on everybody's radar. I met with Senator [Barbara A.] Mikulski just this week and I'm going to get her more information because I want her to be fully on top of this. Senator [Ben] Cardin is also being very supportive. In fact, our congressional delegation has been very effective, and I'm going to use that strength as much as I can.

Because of the enormous backlog of projects that built up during the lean years, how long is the Baltimore area's wish list, and how much money are we talking about?

I haven't added it all up, but there are a lot of projects in the queue and a lot of projects on planning tables and in planning rooms that have had no momentum whatsoever. My biggest challenge is getting some excellent projects in the queue out into the field and doing it as fast as is reasonably possible. … There's a need. We have congestion on highways. We have mass transit needs. We have port needs to get that new terminal and expand into the Sparrows Point peninsula. We have the need both from a quality-of-life standpoint and from an economic development and jobs standpoint. There haven't been any new construction projects to speak of in the last four or five years because there has been no money. A lot of the BRAC interests at Aberdeen and the MARC train interests in Baltimore City and Baltimore County and beyond, we haven't been able to respond to that.

I'd like to circle back on Sparrows Point. That's a heavy lift. It has implications for the surrounding communities, the business future of not only Baltimore County but the state's maritime industry, and the environment. How close is the state to making something happen? What is the time frame?

Now is the time frame. We're attempting to stimulate negotiations right now. This is the time to look at the need to expand the port. I mean, the port is going gangbusters. It is an economic engine for the state. If we don't move now we're going to be landlocked. We're going to lose the opportunity to move into the Sparrows Point peninsula, and we can't afford to do that. We need the additional terminal. We'll be able to take advantage of creating jobs — both direct and indirect.

Once again, the state is looking at the need for a third Chesapeake Bay crossing. The Bay Bridge, if and when capacity is expanded, could be the biggest political football of all time, given the scope of the project, the cost and the communities on both the Eastern and Western shores that will be affected. Is this just another study to be put on a shelf next to other studies or is this the first step to something tangible?

We have a study that's supposed to be completed in two years that will determine whether we need a third crossing and what kind of a bridge we need. We're taking steps to preserve what we've got. We're looking at repair and/or repaving of the westbound span of the Bay Bridge and we're in the process of rewrapping the suspension cables because of corrosion that occurred. We've got to get these studies done in order to know when we have to move and what kind of a structure we're going to have to have in order to satisfy the growing demands. Sure, it can be done. Anything can be done. The question is, should it be done, and when should it be done, and what should it look like? You have to get through all of those before you start planning where you're going to put it and what impacts you're going to get beyond traffic relief it's going to provide. I think we're taking the steps in the right order. In a couple of years, we're going to have the answers.

What have transportation officials learned about the impact of Base Realignment and Closure — BRAC — and how is that knowledge being applied to mitigate problems?

I don't think we necessarily learned anything new. I was involved in this as Baltimore County executive in pushing for BRAC improvements, particularly at Aberdeen. I think our expectations have been met, only we had no money to prepare for those expectations. As a result, we've got a lot of catch-up to do. We're going to be evaluating how much of that catch-up we can work into our six-year planning time. Aberdeen, Fort Meade, Bethesda — they're all going to get attention for intersection improvements, for some road widening. Folks who are impacted should be pleased that there was enough courage in the General Assembly to apply the resources to make improvements. They're going to see the results of the money they're paying for the gas tax and they're going to be pleased because it's going to make a difference in their drive time and it's going to make a difference in the quality of their lives. This money is not going into a black hole. This money is going into the streets, in the tracks, in the air and on the water.

The final question — and I know it makes six, not five. Why did the Washington suburbs get to call their light rail project the Purple Line, when that name would have been more at home in Baltimore, the home of the Super Bowl champion Ravens?

It should have [laughing]. But I wasn't here then.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

James T. Smith Jr.

Age: 71

Resides: Cockeysville

Family: Sandy (wife), four children, 12 grandchildren

Resume: Public defender, four years; Baltimore County Council, seven years; Circuit Court judge, 16 years; Baltimore County executive, two terms

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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