- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A quarter-century after he first began his mission to bring a high-speed, light rail transit line to Charles County, former county commissioner Gary V. Hodge held a public briefing on the project last week at the Waldorf West library.
Hodge, who now advises the county as president of his own consulting firm, began the meeting with a slideshow on light rail systems he had visited in the Phoenix and Tempe areas in Arizona, in Norfolk, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.
He pointed out recurring themes among the three systems, notably that surrounding private investment far outstripped each systems’ cost, and that ridership tended to be double what was projected.
Hodge first began pushing for a light rail line in the region — the only one in the state west of the Chesapeake Bay without any passenger rail service — in 1988, when he was executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland. Since then, he said, the “refrain” has been that Charles County needed denser development and higher potential ridership in order to support light rail transit.
“But then I visit these cities, and the character of these cities that have already accomplished this great achievement look very much like ours,” Hodge said.
One advantage the county has, Hodge said, is its existing CSX freight rail line, which the proposed light rail line will follow from White Plains to Waldorf, where it will break off at Substation Road and divert along Route 5, with stops at Brandywine Crossing, the Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton and Joint Base Andrews before ending at the Branch Avenue Metro station in Marlow Heights.
“Light rail is something that we can feasibly bring here,” he added, recalling statements during the mid-1990s from then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening that the state was going to consider extending Metro service south along Route 5 to Waldorf, a prohibitively expensive project.
Hodge said the next “immediate goal” is to acquire $27 million to plan the project and get it in line for federal funding within the next five to seven years. Beyond that, construction depends on federal and state funding, “two huge ifs” given Congress’ seeming inability to pass a long-term transporation plan and the state’s backlog of unfunded transit projects.
Even if the funding is there, the project would take another five to eight years to build, Hodge said, “but I think everyone understands, I hope they do, the economic impact this could have.
“I’ve said that this project, were it successful, could have as big an impact on Charles County as the consolidation of [the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Naval Air Systems Command] had in the 90s or the building of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear [Power] Plant had in Calvert County in the 70s. This is a very, very big, important project.”
Hodge said the goal is to break ground on the line by the end of the decade and “[see] the first train roll into Waldorf probably in the middle of the next decade, 2025.”
Some have suggested a bus rapid transit system as a cheaper — and therefore more viable — alternative to light rail, but Hodge said that bus transit costs 75 percent as much as light rail to construct while carrying higher operating costs and generating less private investment.
Hodge said a current study nearing completion will address the best ways to encourage transit-oriented development in the designated 300-acre “Waldorf Urban Design Area,” which includes development along U.S. 301 between just south of Leonardtown Road and north of Acton Lane, between now and when the rail line is completed.
“This new urban center, this walkable, mixed-used, transit-oriented development, it will have to grow and thrive in an environment which is not yet served by transit,” he said. “So, part of that is infrastructure. Part of that is investing in the sewage treatment and an urban street grid, [and] public facilities and services that would be attractive to a developer.”
La Plata resident Walt Roscello, a member of the Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club, asked Hodge whether it was possible to quickly put in bike paths to help generate pedestrian traffic in the Waldorf Urban Design Area.
Hodge and Jason Groth, chief of resource and infrastructure management at the Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management, both called Roscello’s suggestion a “great idea” and one they hadn’t considered previously but would look into incorporating.
Charles County Democratic Central Committee member Gene Davies asked Hodge whether there was any way to expedite the project using existing tax revenue.
“There’s a perception that this is not a 12-year, but a two-year or a three-year [project] in the general public, and that is unfortunate” because it has led to the deprioritization of any improvements to the U.S. 301-Route 5 interchange in Brandywine, Davies said.
Hodge reiterated his belief that the light rail project could be funded solely through the gas taxes paid by county residents. He has been told that the state does not track how much it receives in gas tax revenue from each county, but Hodge estimates it’s “$40 or $50 million a year, at least” from Charles.
Because the project needs $5 million annually for the next five years for planning purposes, “my argument is that ought to be available to us.”