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Maryland Democrats have plan to restrict governor on transportation decisions

General Assembly leaders unveiled a plan to restrict the governor's power to make transportation decisions.

The Democratic leaders of the General Assembly want to restrict the governor's power to decide what transportation projects to fund.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch threw their support Tuesday behind legislation that would create a process for determining which transportation projects should be priorities.

The bill would affect all future governors, but is an explicit reaction to Gov. Larry Hogan's decision last summer to shift $1 billion toward highway construction after scrapping the $2.9 billion Red Line through Baltimore. The light rail project had been in planning for more than a decade.

The leaders said the bill would "create a new process to objectively screen and score transportation projects based on their anticipated benefits." It would require the governor to justify decisions that fall outside of that scoring system.

Busch said such a measure was not needed under previous governors because there were opportunities for legislators and local government to give input. Under Hogan, he said, that changed.

"There was no discussion, no collaboration," Busch said. "They waited to the end of the session to put forward their plan without any input from the General Assembly."

Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark defended the governor's record of consulting with local officials. He said the governor crafted "an unprecedented, $2 billion plan that addresses critical transportation projects in every jurisdiction" — both urban and rural.

"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.

There is already a process for providing input on transportation spending plans, Clark said — the transportation secretary's annual "road show" that includes public meetings in each of Maryland's counties and Baltimore. State lawmakers' participation in those meetings has been lacking in many jurisdictions, he said.

"They're not as engaged in the current process as they could be," Clark said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange Sr. and Del. Pam Beidle, Anne Arundel County Democrats, would not prohibit the governor from financing projects that do not score highly on the proposed evaluation system. But it would require the chief executive to publicly explain a decision to go outside the system when he presents his comprehensive transportation plan each year.

Under the proposed evaluation system, the Maryland Department of Transportation would be required to score projects on eight criteria, including community vitality, economic prosperity and equitable access to transportation, factors that Red Line proponents contend were ignored.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said her environmental group pushed for an open scoring system even before Hogan became governor. The Red Line cancellation proved the need for such a change, she said.

Schmidt-Perkins said similar systems have been adopted in other states, including Texas and Louisiana.

"We're hardly talking about the most progressive places in the world," she said.

Republicans took issue with the proposal.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican, issued a statement opposing the change.

"This legislation will bog down our transportation projects with unneeded inefficiency and bureaucracy," he said. "Legislative micromanagement and reducing the voice of local governments will hurt, not help, counties in our state."

Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, denied that the initiative was aimed at clipping Hogan's wings. He pointed to similar legislation adopted last year in Virginia with bipartisan support.

"It's about congestion, it's about commute time and it's providing oversight just to make certain the roads go where they're needed. And it's not binding," Miller said. "We want to make sure every jurisdiction has input into the process. But it's making sure that taxpayers' dollars are spent wisely."

Miller denied that Hogan's decision to cancel the Red Line project was a major impetus for the bill, saying it was driven by "the well-being of the entire state."

But Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat who chairs Baltimore's House delegation, said the Red Line decision underscored the need for change.

"It was like a completely arbitrary decision," he said

Hogan said he canceled the Red Line because it was a "boondoggle" with a price tag inflated by a plan that called for digging a $1 billion tunnel under central Baltimore.

Other bills introduced Tuesday would create an oversight board for the Maryland Transit Administration, require the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside money to replace the 76-year-old Harry W. Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland and create a tax credit for commuters who use public transit or car pools.

The MTA bill, sponsored by Baltimore Del. Brooke Lierman, would create an Oversight and Planning Board to monitor the agency's performance and policies. She noted that other agencies within the Maryland Department of Transportation have such boards.

Lierman, a Democrat, said the board would also ensure that the MTA adopts a long-term planning process.

"An effective MTA will make Maryland more attractive to businesses and residents seeking regions with reliable public transit, and it improves our ability to identify and plan for the strategic investments necessary to bring MTA into the 21st century," she said.

The legislation on the Nice Bridge addresses a major concern in Southern Maryland, which depends heavily on the aging span, its only road link to Virginia.

The transportation authority had been planning the likely replacement of the two-lane bridge carrying U.S. 301 over the Potomac River since before Hogan's move last year to cut tolls threw the project into question. The legislation would require that the state build a new bridge by 2030.

The measure is sponsored by Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton and Del. Sally Jameson, both Charles County Democrats. Among other things, the bill would forbid the authority from spending any money to plan the replacement of the bridge's deck. Advocates of a new bridge contend that redecking would be a waste of money because it would not address the bridge's structural problems or lane capacity.

Clark said that bill, because it mandates a particular project, is at odds with Democrats' proposal to create an objective scoring measure.

The commuter tax break bill, sponsored by Baltimore Del. Cory McCray, would double an existing tax credit for transit commuters and car-poolers from $50 to $100 and reduce the number of passengers to qualify as a car pool from eight to six.

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