- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A light rail line to Washington, D.C., is now Charles County government’s chief transportation-related desire, but the state transportation secretary told the county commissioners Oct. 19 not to expect much of anything to happen soon.
A rail system linking White Plains and Waldorf to the Branch Avenue Metro station, with stops in Prince George’s County, was the county’s primary request in a letter to the Maryland Department of Transportation in the spring. But when Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley presented her department’s funding plan through fiscal 2017, commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) noted that light rail was not mentioned anywhere.
There is “nothing [in the department’s plan] on our top priority and so we wanted to get a little feedback from you on that, and respectfully request you put this project into consideration for the transportation priorities for 2012. We’re concerned, if something were to come available, we’re not going to be positioned as we hope to be” for federal funding, Kelly said.
But with a tight state budget and the gusher of federal money drying up, most available funds are being used for “system preservation,” or preventing the decay of existing roads and other infrastructure, Swaim-Staley said.
“We haven’t really started that kind of [large public transit] project anywhere in the state,” except for some Metro system upgrades and expansions, she said.
Since its last meeting with Swaim-Staley in June the board has settled on a light rail plan — Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) previously backed a plan to run commuter trains on existing freight tracks, via a terminal in Bowie — and committed to protecting rights of way needed for light rail and to concentrating development in town centers, as the secretary suggested in June, Kelly said.
Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said mass transit would boost local property values.
“We have been pushing this for 20 years,” Middleton said. “The commissioners have come together to support a rapid transit line. We need to have some discussions about local participation. Federal money is drying up, but there’s a thing called transit-oriented development. … Doing this transit-oriented development, by its very nature you really increase significantly the value of that property.”
The senator also acknowledged the political implications of the project.
“You have to bring back some goodies to the jurisdiction if you’re going to take the vote,” he said.
Robinson jumped far ahead by unilaterally handing out a flier proposing a name for the light rail line — the Southern Maryland Area Rapid Transit Line, or SMART Line. The other commissioners were visibly irked.
“I don’t even know what to say. … I want to make sure it’s clear this has not been sanctioned, endorsed, reviewed or approved,” Kelly said.
“This is first we’ve seen of it,” Commissioner Debra Davis (D) said.
In an interview Monday, Robinson said he shifted his support to light rail because of the need for unanimity from the board, and because a light rail project seemed more likely to garner support from state government.
He was more optimistic than Swaim-Staley seemed to be about timing, saying residents might expect to see a “shovel in the ground” for a light rail line by about 2015. Proposing a name for the line was a way to lobby for the project, he said.
“As you recall from the meeting last week, I really believe that marketing helped the Purple Line get federal funding it received in the last couple of weeks. And I put my marketing hat on and decided I wanted to give the line a name,” Robinson said.
The Purple Line is a Metrorail project in Montgomery County.
Planning and lobbying are important because if federal money materializes, the county should be well-positioned to get it, he said.
“The more background work you have done the more likely you are. Us sitting on sidelines waiting, that is not a road I would travel,” he said.
Former county commissioner Gary V. Hodge, who attended the meeting, said he was gratified but not surprised to see the board settle on light rail, which long has been his choice.
“The importance of light rail transit is that it is a catalyst for private sector investment, so when we’re looking at the dual goals of moving commuters efficiently and quickly to Washington or from Charles County, which is one of our primary goals, obviously we have a second equally important goal of redeveloping Waldorf as a new urban center that can be a focal point for future growth as part of the county’s growth management strategy,” Hodge said.
Light rail is more likely to spur private development in Waldorf than a bus line would be because rail is more permanent and makes an area a safer investment, he said.
Middleton made a push to solicit federal funds to replace the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River on the grounds that, as part of a potential evacuation route for the nation’s capital, the structure rises to the level of a national security issue.
Other jurisdictions, including King George County, Va., support this approach for a new bridge, he said.
“People keep coming back to how important that bridge is from a homeland security point of view. I know the federal cow is drying up, but there is still money there that someone is going to get,” Middleton said.
“We have federal support,” Robinson said.
“Be that as it may: light rail, light rail, light rail. You heard it here first,” Kelly said.
Charles County is included in the “U.S. 301 South Corridor Transportation Study” to examine possible highway or transit upgrades in Charles and Prince George’s counties, according to DOT documents distributed at the meeting.
The state spent $55.8 million on planning and right of way acquisition through June 30, 2010, with another $16.6 million to be spent by June 30, 2016. Also included in the plan is the “Waldorf Area Project” to study constructing a Waldorf bypass for U.S. 301.
The study is stalled for lack of the $1.6 million needed for the next two fiscal years, and construction of the bypass “offers significant challenges for us environmentally,” said State Highway Administration District Engineer Lee Starkloff.
Kelly said that suited the board just fine because the county would prefer a light rail system anyway.
Upcoming maintenance projects in the county include road repaving in fiscal 2013 at a cost of about $5 million. Already under construction or to begin during this fiscal year are rumble strips in various places, safety improvements on Leonardtown Road in Waldorf and Charles Street in La Plata, and a longer left turn for cars turning left from U.S. 301 onto Billingsley Road in Waldorf, costing an estimated total of $1.3 million.
Streetscape improvements on Leonardtown Road, still being designed, and wetland restoration in Hughesville, already under construction, will cost a total of $2.8 million.