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Does math make sense in picking transportation projects?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), center, chats with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert), left, at a bill signing along with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), right, in Annapolis. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

The Virginia and Maryland governments are pursuing the same theory about how to plan transportation improvements, but they’re heading toward very different outcomes.

The theory makes good sense: If you want to take politics out of planning, then evaluate projects on the same scale of public benefits and give them scores. Unless there are special circumstances, those that score highest should have first crack at financing.

Less politics, more math.

That made sense to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration and the Virginia General Assembly. The Commonwealth Transportation Board, Virginia’s top policy panel, is holding public meetings across the state to discuss the first results of project scoring.

In an interview after he attended the meeting for Northern Virginia, State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne expressed his satisfaction. Layne said the public discussion was moving away from how much money individual jurisdictions were getting for transportation projects.

“We could never get here without the technical stuff we did,” he said. “Now the conversation is more about results and things Virginians can understand: Are we getting good things built?”

In Maryland, by contrast, the scoring idea made sense to the legislature and not to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration. Hogan vetoed the bill. Then the General Assembly overrode the veto.

“It was poorly thought out,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said of the scoring legislation. In an interview, he warned that some projects dear to the hearts of travelers in the Washington suburbs may not fare well in this “bureaucratic exercise” of scoring.

Hogan finds robust support for transportation plans in rural areas

Why such different reactions to the same basic idea? It has a lot to do with the different political situations in the two states, as well as differences in how the scoring systems were developed.

But there is an interesting similarity: Each state operates with a divided government. Maryland has a Republican governor, while the General Assembly is controlled by Democrats. In Virginia, it’s the other way around.

Although partisan battles between executive and assembly are common in the states, Virginia has more experience dealing with two-party government in the modern era. In Virginia, the law bars governors from serving consecutive terms. In Maryland, Democrats do their political best to make sure a Republican governor serves only one term.

The Virginia assembly approved its law, known as House Bill 2, in 2014, after years of trying to figure out which transportation projects it really needs and how to pay for them. House Bill 2 was seen as a more rational way to set priorities for financing. It passed overwhelmingly in the assembly and was signed by the new governor. “This new law is revolutionizing the way transportation projects are selected,” McAuliffe said at the time.

In the two years since, the Virginia Department of Transportation has developed the scoring system, which gives different weights to values such as congestion relief and economic development.

Then planners used the new system to score individual projects. That list has been under review for months, leading to a series of public meetings across the state in April and May. The Commonwealth Transportation Board votes on the final list of priorities next month.

At the Northern Virginia meeting last week, local leaders and transportation advocates urged transportation board members to give special consideration to particular projects, but many expressed general acceptance of the scoring system.

“A big part was the buy-in across the commonwealth because they were part of the process,” Layne said.

Marylanders are not going to have this kind of experience. House Bill 1013, the Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act of 2016, was the result of a flat-out battle between the executive and the legislature. The government branches are controlled by different parties, and they also tend to have different visions of Maryland’s transportation priorities. Democratic legislators are still smarting from Hogan’s decision last year to kill the Red Line light-rail project in Baltimore.

Hogan is allowing the Purple Line light-rail project to proceed in the Washington suburbs, but he also has shown a strong interest in promoting highway projects in a highly urbanized state that tilts toward transit and other out-of-the-car programs.

The Maryland law mandates that the state Department of Transportation “score the extent to which certain major capital projects satisfy the goals” established under the legislation.

In his veto message, Hogan said, in part:

“The obvious intent of the legislation is to severely limit the decision-making of local governments, to strip the executive branch of its authority over transportation decisions and to create new mechanisms to divert taxpayer dollars away from highway infrastructure.”

Whatever the Democrats’ intention, the final version of the law doesn’t impose insufferable constrictions on the governor and the Department of Transportation. It won’t transfer control of transportation planning from the executive to the legislature. And it’s not going to do anything anytime soon.

A scoring system makes a lot of sense, but it’s not sufficient to put transportation planning on a more rational footing. Virginia is doing it right. The Virginia system is a bipartisan exercise engaging every part of the state in the planning.

Maryland is doing it wrong. No matter what the merits of the law, only a cooperative program has a chance of succeeding.