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Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary James T. Smith insisted Tuesday that Charles County retains control over its comprehensive plan update during an annual meeting between county and state transportation officials, but stood by his letter sent last month questioning whether the draft plan supports the county’s long-term goal of bringing a light rail line to Waldorf.

Smith was cordial in assuring the county commissioners that his Aug. 23 letter “was not intended to tell you what to do with your zoning,” but to suggest the low-density residential designation given to large swaths of the county in the draft plan could conflict with federal standards for transit projects.

“What it was intended to do was to let you know that depending on what your land use plan is, [it] could seriously impact, and probably would seriously impact, your vision and your top priority of getting the mass transit to Waldorf,” he said.

Smith noted that construction of the Baltimore Red Line and Purple Line connecting Bethesda and New Carrollton each depend on $900 million in federal funding.

“Land use policies that don’t support the densities that are necessary to attract federal transportation dollars really prevent the opportunity to pursue those projects,” he said. “So I wasn’t telling you what to do. I was just suggesting that you look at the full picture of what you have going for Charles County, and kind of decide how are you going to address your No. 1 priority for mass transit against your rural residential land use policies, and are they compatible? Do they work together to get you all that you want?”

Given that the state is set to pay $5 million for a study on transit options linking Waldorf to the Branch Avenue Metro Station in Marlow Heights, Smith added that “it would be irresponsible of me” to not raise the issue with the commissioners.

Nonetheless, “the decisions to be made are yours, not the Department of Transportation’s,” he concluded.

Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) thanked Smith for his “candor” on the matter, while board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said the county remains committed to the light rail project after making it a priority for the last five years.

Smith’s letter came a couple of weeks after Maryland Department of Planning Secretary Rich Hall called the Charles County Planning Commission’s Aug. 5 approval of the draft update “pitiful” on his personal Facebook page. A similar letter from Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Raymond A. Skinner followed on Sept. 11, and 13 members of the Maryland Smart Growth Subcabinet — including Hall, Smith, Skinner and 10 other agency heads — signed a Sept. 20 letter expressing “serious” concern with the draft plan.

DHCD Assistant Secretary for Neighborhood Revitalization Carol Anne Gilbert was the only subcabinet member to not sign the Sept. 20 letter, but she wrote in an email Wednesday that her signature wasn’t needed since Skinner represented the department.

“I certainly support the letter,” she said.

Each fall Maryland’s transportation agencies meet with local jurisdictions to present the state’s Consolidated Transportation Program, which accounts for every project planned over the next six years. The latest CTP calls for $15.4 billion in transportation funding through fiscal 2020, the most in state history, Smith said.

Smith credited 2013 legislation enacting a gas tax increase with a needed $4.4 billion “infusion of funding” needed to repair and add to the state’s aging infrastructure. Included in the funding is $34 million for Charles County projects — the transit study, two $12 million allotments to expand the county’s commuter bus service and purchase rights of way for a future interchange at Route 5 and Accokeek Road in Brandywine, plus another $5 million to complete federal environmental surveys required to build Waldorf interchanges along U.S. 301 at Berry Road and Mattawoman-Beantown Road.

The CTP also includes $6 million in toll revenue for preliminary engineering work on a Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge replacement, the total cost of which is estimated at $850 million.

Collins thanked Smith for the transportation funding coming to Charles County.

“I think we’ve come full circle to the extent that, in last year’s CTP we had a designated page, but on that page there was,” Collins began, but Smith finished the sentence for him.

“Not enough numbers on that page,” he chuckled.

jnewman@somdnews.com