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Harford council members join other Republicans in condemning state transportation ranking bills

Harford County Council members are opposing two bills before the Maryland General Assembly that would impose a rating system on state transportation projects and which critics say could reduce funding for projects in smaller and mid-size counties like Harford.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan also is opposed to the two measures, which are backed by the Democratic leadership in the legislature and which could limit the authority of Hogan and future governors to decide how transportation funds are spent.

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Harford Councilmen Joe Woods and Curtis Beulah spoke out at Tuesday night's council meeting against House Bill 1013, or the Maryland Open House Transportation Investment Decision Act of 2016, which had a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee earlier that day.

Woods and Beulah said that in addition to changing how state transportation projects are prioritized, the bill risks taking away any local control of transportation funding.

Both council members were in Annapolis earlier to support opposition to the bill, Woods said. All seven Harford council members are Republicans.

Although Harford County appeared to come up short in Gov. Larry Hogan's announcement Thursday of a $1.97 billion funding commitment for highways and bridges construction and repair, one local legislator hailed the governor's announcement as a victory for road projects across Maryland in need of funding.

"I think it's a bad bill and will hurt the county, especially in rural areas," Woods said.

Beulah, who called the legislation "a 100 percent political move," asked his colleagues to look at the bill and to speak out against it.

HB-1013 and a Senate version, SB-908, are backed by key Democrats, including House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas Mike Miller. Both have criticized Hogan's transportation funding choices, such as canceling Baltimore's Red Line mass transit project to make more money available for highways.

The bills would rate transportation projects based on factors such as safety, traffic relief, economic prosperity, equitable access to transportation, job access and environmental stewardship.

The primary sponsor of the House legislation, Del. Pamela Beidle of Anne Arundel County, told members of the appropriations committee that the bill is designed to give the public greater insight into how state transportation officials decide which projects get funding and which do not get funded.

"The bill does not require that projects be funded by their ranking," she said. "It just requires that they be ranked."

"For the purpose of transparency, it would make the scores available to the public," she added.

The ranking system for Maryland would be similar to a system used by Virginia, the result of legislation passed by that state's legislature in 2014, Beidle said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn expressed strong opposition to the bill, as he and Heather Murphy, MDOT's director of planning and capital programming, went back and forth with committee members during the hearing that lasted two hours.

"If this is not intended to be how we select projects, I'm at a loss to understand why we go through the process of applying this scoring," Rahn said.

The secretary said the ranking system would be a "bureaucratic exercise" if each project's score does not factor into funding priorities.

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Rahn said the Virginia model, in which projects are ranked within their respective regions of the state, cannot be applied to Maryland's "multimodal" transportation setup, with roads, mass transit, airports and ports.

"This system has no such regionalization and in fact does cause all of the regions of the state to compete as a single entity," he said.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, also testified against the HB-1013 Tuesday, saying he is concerned about the ranking system being "one size fits all."

"I think counties are losing ground," Sanderson said.

Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky said he was in a conference call Monday with MACo and a coalition of Maryland's "big eight" counties have "very strongly registered their concern about the purpose and effectiveness of this bill."

Chris Boardman, a member of the Public Advisory Committee to the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, tried to speak out on the issue at the end of the county council meeting, but Slutzky denied his request because he had not signed up in advance.

The Hogan administration and GOP lawmakers mounted an all-out counterattack Tuesday against Democratic-backed legislation that would alter the way Maryland evaluates transportation spending projects.

After the meeting, Boardman, a longtime Joppa resident, said he disagrees with the council's view on the ranking bills because Harford County Executive Barry Glassman is serving as chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council this year and Boardman feels Harford County is well represented on transportation issues.

"It's just disingenuous," he said about the council members' opposition.

Glassman was in Annapolis Tuesday to testify on another bill supporting benefits for surviving children of public safety officers and did not speak during the transportation bill hearing, spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

He did oppose the Senate bill in a statement last month, saying: "Senate Bill 908 politicizes an already complex funding scheme to get local transportation projects in the Consolidated Transportation Plan for Maryland counties. It could also further delay funding and make it less predictable as projects go through a commission, all of which impedes efforts to address our long term transportation needs."

An email sent Tuesday by Hogan's office arguing the bill would unbalance Hogan's funding of major transportation projects does not show any projects planned in Harford this year. One listed under Baltimore County is the replacement of the Route 40 bridges over the Little Gunpowder and Big Gunpowder Falls in the Joppa area with an estimated cost of $12.4 million.

Last summer, Hogan announced with great fanfare that he was making an almost $2 billion commitment to fund additional highway and bridge projects across the state, but Harford was conspicuously left off that list.

Mumby, however, said Harford has not been completely abandoned by state transportation funding and that Glassman's issues with the two ranking bills are about the process, not "any particular year."

"We do have some intersection improvements along the area of Aberdeen Proving Ground that are in the process of being completed," she noted. "It's true we do have to fight for every dollar, and this legislation, we feel, would further complicate matters, makes us compete more with larger counties and exacerbates the issues for rural/suburban counties like our own."

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this article.

This report is updated with a correction regarding Chris Boardman's membership on  the Public Advisory Committee to the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board.

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