Maryland Senate moves quickly to recoup $4.8 million in lost federal aid

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
One reason Maryland lost $4.8 million in transit aid: state wrongly assumed it faced a "soft" deadline.

After federal authorities followed through last week on a threat to withhold millions in transit aid from Maryland, the state Senate on Tuesday began fast-tracking a bill to restore the money.

Sen. Brian Feldman said lawmakers believed they had a "soft deadline" of Feb. 9 to create a new safety agency to oversee Washington, D.C.'s troubled Metro rail line. He said they didn't realize it was a "hard deadline" until the new Trump administration sent a letter Friday revoking $4.8 million in federal aid.

"We were all caught by surprise," said Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Federal Relations.

Maryland, Virginia and D.C. were each penalized 5 percent of their federal transit aid for failing to establish a newly empowered safety commission by the deadline. They money will be reinstated if the jurisdictions create the agency — something officials agreed to do in principle seven years ago after a collision killed nine people near the Fort Totten Metro stop.

In February 2016, the Department of Transportation set the Feb. 9 deadline to enact a plan. The process involves passing identical legislation in all three jurisdictions, setting up the new agency and making sure it has the funds to operate.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller twice used profanity in the normally staid Senate chambers Monday night after Feldman told colleagues about failing to meet the deadline. Using a legislative maneuver that bypasses the hearing process, the Senate gave preliminary approval to legislation creating the safety agency Tuesday, and could grant final passage as soon as Wednesday.

In the House of Delegates, legislation to create the commission remains in the Environment and Transportation Committee, where chairman Kumar Barve says it needs more scrutiny.

Barve, also a Democrat from Montgomery County, said it was not clear if the legislation already passed by the D.C. government satisfies all the federal requirements. He also said the withheld federal aid won't affect Maryland's budget as long as it is restored before the end of the federal fiscal year, which is Sept. 30.

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