After Republican Gov. Larry Hogan killed Baltimore’s proposed $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project in 2015, Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly tried to fight back — passing legislation mandating that the Maryland Department of Transportation create a metric-based scoring system to rank capital projects.
The idea, they argued, was to prevent the governor from killing major projects on a whim or prioritizing cars over public transportation without supporting data.
Finishing last? Baltimore City and Baltimore County’s request for a light rail line that runs east and west through the city — a proposal known as the Red Line.
State transportation officials awarded the Red Line a score of just 1.45.
Transit advocates are crying foul.
“The General Assembly passed this law in an attempt to be more open and transparent in how we’re spending our transportation resources. MDOT has complied with the law to the minimum extent possible,” said Eric Norton, director of policy and programs for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. “Projects they want to fund get perfect scores and projects they don’t want to fund get low scores. It doesn’t pass the smell test that they’re faithfully executing this law.”
The Hogan administration said it is complying with the law, but argues it’s the price tag associated with the projects — more so than the project’s merit — that is causing the large disparity in scores. The law requires state officials to rank all requests from local jurisdictions for transportation projects costing $5 million or more that expand highway or transit capacity.
Hogan’s plan to add hundreds of miles of express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 between Washington and Frederick — which critics deride as “Lexus Lanes” — received a perfect score of 500 because state officials said private contractors will pay for the lanes, costing taxpayers nothing.
Meanwhile, the Red Line proposal — which scored high in the metric’s categories of providing “equitable access to transportation,” promoting “safety and security” and contributing to “community vitality” — was harmed by its $2.4 billion price tag for state taxpayers. (Hogan returned $900 million in federal funds for the project when he killed it in 2015.)
State officials divided the Red Line’s score on merit — in which it ranked second-best of all transportation projects requested last year — by its price tag, which was by far the most expensive of any project listed. The cost made it finish last, they say.
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who served as floor leader for the bill requiring the transportation scoring system, questioned state transportation officials about their implementation of the law at a hearing in February.
“I believe it’s the first [capital budget] that you’ve pretended to score things,” Lierman told Pete K. Rahn, the state’s transportation secretary. “There was supposed to be a work group that met. I was supposed to be a part of that. And I was never invited to any meetings. It’s my understanding that work group has never met.”
Heather Murphy, director of the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Office of Planning and Capital Programming, testified that projects were scored in large part based on their price tag.
“All of the scores have a factor in there based on the cost,” Murphy said. “It’s a cost-benefit.”
As for the road-widening project in Montgomery County, designed to alleviate some of the country’s worst traffic congestion, Murphy said it received a perfect score because the state does not believe taxpayer dollars will be used to construct the lanes.
Private developers are expected to build the lanes and then collect the revenue from drivers who pay the tolls.
“We scored it as no cost to the state. The benefits came out to the maximum score,” Murphy testified.
Lierman said this week that the transportation department’s scoring system is seriously flawed. Any privately financed project would receive a perfect score, no matter how misguided, under the state’s reasoning, she argued.
Lierman pointed to Virginia, where she said the neighboring state has implemented a better scoring system to help prioritize how to spend limited transportation funds.
“The legislature isn’t able to execute the laws ourselves,” Lierman said. “Governors in other states have worked in a bipartisan manner to implement sensible transportation policies. It’s been incredibly frustrating that the governor and the MDOT secretary are misapplying a scoring formula that is supposed to ensure the Maryland Department of Transportation is spending taxpayer dollars wisely and implementing sound transportation policy.”
The law was a compromise measure after a bitter fight between Democrats and Hogan over what he called their "Road Kill Bill,” which he argued would derail important transportation projects. The law requires officials to study local transportation projects, rank them and offer an explanation if any project receives state funding over one that is ranked higher.
According to a new Washington Post poll, 61 percent of D.C.-area residents favor Hogan’s express toll lane plan.
In 2015, a Goucher College poll found that 64 percent of Marylanders who had heard of the Red Line proposal said they supported the project.