Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) plans to call for the repeal of a new transportation finance law opposed by him and by county officials who are alarmed by the scores their projects have received under a state system for prioritizing funding.
St. Mary’s Board of County Commissioners President James Randy Guy (R) said he talked with the governor about the issue at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City, which is the state’s largest annual gathering of elected officials.
“He said we need to repeal the bill,” Guy said. “What will happen now, who knows?”
A source close to Hogan confirmed the governor’s plans.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn held back-to-back meetings with county officials from across the state throughout the conference to discuss their transportation priorities. He said every one of the officials he spoke with expressed concerns about the scoring system.
“They want to talk about scoring and the impacts on their counties,” he said after meeting with officials from half of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore.
Early this year, Hogan had rejected the legislation, which requires road and transit proposals to be rated before the state decides which to fund. But Maryland’s Democrat-controlled legislature voted along party lines to override his veto.
Last week, controversy erupted about how the new law was being implemented, with Democrats accusing the Hogan administration of launching the rating program prematurely to stoke concerns ahead of the annual conference.
In July, the Hogan administration sent letters to the jurisdictions saying it needed detailed information about their projects by Aug. 15 in order to rate them under the metrics outlined in the new law. Then last week the state Transportation Department began sending letters to the counties and Baltimore telling them how their projects scored.
“We scored zero,”Guy said. “We had seven projects on the books, and that means they’re not going to be funded. We have two intersections that have miles of backup of traffic during rush-hour traffic. We need to work to get this bill overturned.”
Other counties, especially in rural areas, had similar results. The Transportation Department told Allegany County, for example, that it would receive no money from a $917 million pot of funds for projects designed to increase road capacity.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General David W. Stamper, who serves as counsel for the legislature, said in a letter last week to the House Appropriations Committee chair, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), that the transportation measure calls for the scoring process to begin in 2017.
“To the extent that MDOT is requiring local jurisdictions to submit this information, it appears to be doing so as a matter of departmental policy, not because [the law] requires that it do so,” he said.
Stamper acknowledged that the legislation was “not entirely clear” and that it could be interpreted to mean that scoring should begin this year, but he concluded that the “better interpretation” is that it should start next year, after the legislature’s regulatory-review committee has had a chance to review the scoring guidelines.
The Transportation Department’s general counsel, who works with the state attorney general’s office, had drawn the opposite conclusion. But on Tuesday, the administration sent a letter notifying jurisdictions that it would postpone the scoring until next year.
“If the attorney general for the General Assembly and members of the legislature have no interest in implementing their new law at this time, then neither does MDOT,” wrote Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr.
Hogan and state transportation officials had argued that the new law would diminish local influence over transportation decisions, with the rating process favoring transit proposals and projects in urban areas.
Supporters of the measure said it would make the decision-making process more transparent without disrupting local input. They also noted that the administration could choose lower-scoring plans if they provide an explanation, and that the Republican-dominated legislatures in Virginia and North Caroline passed similar laws.
McIntosh described the letters to the counties as “purely political,” saying they were an attempt to make the new law seem frightening. She also accused the administration of trying to use the scoring process to avoid blame for potentially cutting transportation plans it had promised based on older projections for gas-tax revenues.
“They’re trying to put the blame on the legislature for what I think will be shortcomings in their transportation budget,” she said.
Rahn suggested that McIntosh is promoting a baseless conspiracy theory, saying she has a “vivid imagination.”
The secretary acknowledged that the state faces a nearly $750 million shortfall for its six-year transportation plan, but he said he can cover that 5 percent difference in the roughly $15 billion transportation budget with stricter control of project costs and changes in how his department approaches maintenance.
“At worst, there will be some projects that are moved for a year or two, but we’re mostly going to manage our way through this,” he said.
McIntosh said she plans to hold a hearing on the transportation law this fall.
Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner (D), who supports transportation scoring to identify high-priority projects, said Democrats and Republicans need to set aside politics and work together on either clarifying the law or setting guidelines for the rating system.
“Elected leaders are supposed to lead, and we need to problem-solve this,” she said. “We have a year now, so we need to make this something that is clearly understandable and works for people in every part of the state. Transportation is a common interest.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of the shortfall for Maryland’s six-year transportation plan as $75 million. The shortfall is $750 million. The article has been corrected.