The Hogan administration has backed off of plans to implement a new system for scoring state transportation projects this year after the Maryland attorney general's office issued an opinion saying the law does not require it to do so before next year.
In a letter to Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore, Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. dropped the department's insistence that the new law forces it to begin scoring projects by Sept. 1.
Ports restated the opposition of Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of Transportation to the scoring legislation approved by the General Assembly this year.
Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the measure, but Democratic supermajorities in the Assembly overrode the veto. It was the most heated confrontation between them this year.
"MDOT does not believe this new law reflects sound transportation policy and vigorously objects to its use to prioritize transportation projects," Ports wrote. "Therefore, if the Attorney General for the General Assembly and members of the legislature have no interest in implementing their new law at this time, neither does MDOT."
Maryland Assistant Attorney General David W. Stamper, counsel to the legislature, told lawmakers last week that the best interpretation of the law is that it requires the Transportation Department to develop formal rules for assigning scores to projects before implementing the system. He pointed to a provision giving the department until Jan. 1 to propose such rules.
Democratic leaders have insisted that they did not intend the system to be adopted until September 2017, when the department is to release its draft Comprehensive Transportation Program for 2018-2023. They contend that the department is required to go through a full rule-making process that includes receiving comments from the legislature and the public.
Since the law was passed in the spring, the department has come up with an in-house scoring system based on its interpretation of the measure. Based on that system, it informed most of Maryland's counties and Baltimore that their projects would be ineligible under a strict reading of the law. The only projects that could be funded, it said, were in Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties.
Ports said the department would stick by those scores.
"To be clear, the scoring we shared with you earlier this month was not simulated, but an actual application of the scoring mandated by the new law. The same process will now take place in 2017," he said.
In three letters to the counties since late July, Ports has portrayed the scoring system as one that rigidly binds the department's decisions on funding capacity-building projects worth $5 million or more.
Democrats reject that contention as a scare tactic. They point to language that allows the department to prioritize a less highly scored project if it can provide a rational explanation for the decision.