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The St. Mary’s County commissioners begrudgingly joined Calvert County on Tuesday in a federal Metropolitan Planning Organization to remain qualified for federal transportation funding.

It was a designation the St. Mary’s commissioners had appealed to the state and federal government to avoid.

The planning organization designations are based on population clusters, called an Urbanized Area, by the U.S. Census Bureau. Once an area receives that label, it falls under federal rules to continue to qualify for federal transportation money — about $1 million a year in the case for St. Mary’s County, mostly for a public bus system.

“I’m vehemently opposed to this,” Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said of the MPO designation. The commissioners recently met with state transportation officials to further appeal the designation and “they agreed the map doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

The map for this designated area is made up of disjointed areas of Lexington Park, California, St. Mary’s City, Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Chesapeake Ranch Estates neighborhood in Calvert County. More than 50,000 people live in these areas. Chesapeake Ranch Estates has its own private network of roads and neither state nor local officials have jurisdiction over base roads.

Morgan called joining the MPO “pure blackmail. We lose our federal transportation funding” if the county doesn’t agree.

“I would have to say ditto, but I want to go a little further,” Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) said. “If we don’t do this as a board, we don’t get any federal funding for transportation. It is a huge amount. If we say no, that money just doesn’t come,” he said. “This is called being held hostage by the federal government.”

Commissioner Cindy Jones (R) also called the designation blackmail. “There will be requirements for reporting ... that will cost county government more money,” she said.

“They put the [Patuxent] River in the middle of this thing,” said Commissioner Dan Morris (R).

Jarboe made the motion to approve the designation “under duress,” he said, to which Morgan and Jones agreed. The vote was 5-0.

Commission President Jack Russell (D) said after the meeting, “We spend a lot of federal dollars — the sheriff, social services, the schools — and they all have stipulations. We spend an awful lot of money that the federal and state government give us.” To replace the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge connecting St. Mary’s and Calvert counties will cost more than $750 million. “We’re going to have to get federal money for that bridge one way or the other,” he said. “Did I like this? Absolutely not. A million dollars of [St. Mary’s Transit System] funding made me pinch my nostrils and vote for this. I don’t think the average citizens would like to lose of any of this STS funding,” he said.

The commissioners were told by state transportation officials in April that St. Mary’s County government received $1,060,000 in federal and state transit money and $246,000 for new STS buses.

jbabcock@somdnews.com