New Md. transportation secretary evaluates how to use gas tax funds

James T. Smith Jr. had no interest in overseeing a state transportation network so tight on money that new roads and transit systems had little chance of being built.

At 71, he had an impressive résumé: seven years on the Baltimore County Council, 16 years as a Circuit Court judge and two terms as Baltimore County’s executive. When people close to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) asked last summer if he’d be interested in heading the state Transportation Department, Smith said he told them “no.”

“I just didn’t want, at this time in my life, to preside over a department treading water,” he said recently.

So why is he now Maryland’s new transportation secretary?

“The environment changed,” he said.

With a new state sales tax on gasoline, there is suddenly money to be had — an estimated $4.4 billion in additional revenue over the next six years — and a long wish list of projects that were postponed during the lean years.

Smith will help to determine who gets what, and when.

“The person serving as secretary of transportation for the next year or so will be making some critical decisions about spending that will shape transportation for years to come in Maryland,” said Lon Anderson, head of government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Like other Washington-area transportation watchers, Anderson said he knows little about Smith, who has spent his entire legal and government career in the Baltimore area. Some said they worry whether he is familiar enough with the Washington suburbs, particularly the need for congestion relief on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 and plans for a 16-mile light-rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Smith has long championed a 14-mile light-rail Red Line through Baltimore, which could end up competing against a Purple Line for construction money.

“We remain wary of the Purple Line keeping its place in line,” said Ralph Bennett, president of the Purple Line NOW advocacy group. “He’ll have a whole lot of people trying to get his attention, and we want to be among them.”

Smith, who lives in Cockeysville in Baltimore County, said he is well aware that he must keep promises made statewide that the additional pain at the pump would ease traffic, provide more transit options, create jobs and spur economic development.

“One of the biggest challenges of our department is to deliver visible signs of what this money is allowing to happen,” Smith said recently during a one-hour interview at the Maryland Department of Transportation headquarters near Baltimore-
Washington International Marshall Airport. “There’s so much in the queue that it will be a challenge to get it out.”

He has already started. Last week, Smith joined O’Malley and Prince George’s County officials in announcing $650 million in state money for local projects, including new interchanges that had been delayed and $280 million to continue design work and to buy land along the planned Purple Line route.

Michele Whelley, head of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said business leaders in her group want more commuter train service, as well as road improvements around Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade. They also want to see new sidewalks and bike lanes to better link Fort Meade with two commuter rail stations.

“He’s lucky in that he has the funds,” Whelley said of Smith. “His challenge will be in prioritizing what gets the biggest bang for the buck. It’s a lot of money, but there’s also a huge backlog of need.”

Smith also will oversee the state’s early work with private companies and investors to help build and manage transportation projects. A new law makes such public-private partnerships easier to do in Maryland. He said he expects to announce in about a month details of the private investment the state will seek for the Purple Line’s $2.2 billion construction.

Even if private investors pitch in, the state would continue to seek federal aid for half of the Purple Line’s costs, he said. National competition for that money is fierce, and how much Congress will allot to transit construction in the next transportation bill remains uncertain.

“We’re obviously in the mix at the federal level,” Smith said, “but is there going to be anything to mix with?”

Smith said the state also plans to consider private investment and pursue federal money for a nine-mile Corridor Cities Transitway in upper Montgomery County. The proposed busway would be designed to limit traffic congestion on I-270 by linking the Metropolitan Grove commuter rail station with the Metrorail system at Shady Grove. The busway proposal, which is behind the Purple Line in the design process, is estimated to cost about $545 million.

Much of the economic development planned for Montgomery’s biotechnology corridor can’t occur until a transit line is funded.

“I’d like to get that moving faster,” Smith said. “Maybe we can soup that up a bit.”

Smith, a longtime political ally of O’Malley’s, has strong relationships in Annapolis from working with lawmakers as a county executive as well as with political leaders statewide from leading the Maryland Association of Counties, political observers said.

“He can step right in,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, which advocates for transportation that limits sprawl development. “He knows most of the players.”

With 10,000 employees, the Transportation Department is one of the state’s largest and has an annual budget of $4.4 billion. Smith’s annual salary is $169,400.

He said he brings to the job a firm belief that transportation “is more than just about getting people from Point A to Point B. It’s about creating economic vitality and vibrancy in communities.”

He pointed to the “renaissance” he led in Baltimore County to revive older neighborhoods with new libraries, schools and community centers and his work to create town centers and focus development around transit lines.

“When you talk about individual projects, they’re not just lines on a map,” said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). “A county executive knows that it means jobs, it means growth, it means how people will get their kids to soccer matches.”

Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, a friend of Smith’s and his predecessor as Maryland transportation secretary, said, “He clearly understands how transportation can improve people’s lives.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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