The political will for a light rail line serving Southern Maryland through Charles County is in place, and what’s needed now is for the public to come out in strong support of it, residents learned Monday at a community briefing at the the Waldorf West Public Library.
Gary V. Hodge, a long-time advocate for a light rail system and a former county commissioner, hosted the community briefing to bring citizens up to speed on the project and provide a preview of what the county can expect in the near future.
Hodge, president of Regional Policy Advisors, a consulting firm, noted that elected officials and the public in both Charles and Prince George’s counties have consistently expressed a preference for the light rail option over buses.
“It’s a system that mutually benefits the entire corridor,” Hodge said. “It is so self-evidently beneficial to the people of this region.”
Hodge described a light rail system as one of the most ambitious economic development projects ever undertaken in Southern Maryland, comparable to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station or the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.
In May, the Maryland Transit Administration issued its final report in its three-year Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Study. The report summarizes options for bus and rail rapid transit along a 19-mile corridor that would parallel Route 5 and U.S. 301 from the Branch Avenue Metro station in Prince George’s County to the Waldorf-White Plains area in Charles County.
According to the report, a rapid transit system would allow the county’s transportation network to keep pace with proposed residential and commercial development through 2040 and reduce commute times to and from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area by up to 24 minutes, among other advantages.
The report found that light rail could be expanded more easily than bus transit to meet increased ridership. While the overall costs for a bus system would likely be $500 million less than for rail, the annual operating costs of light rail would be lower by approximately $10 million.
The SMRT study is the fifth study of rapid transit options along the Route 5/U.S. 301 corridor since 1988.
Hodge explained that the SMRT study revealed that a bus rapid transit system would be at capacity the moment it launched, and could not be expanded.
“This puts the state administrators on the horns of a dilemma,” Hodge said. “We would spend a billion dollars to develop a [bus] system that will be obsolete the moment it launches.”
Hodge said that the light rail option has the support of every elected official in Southern Maryland.
In its draft of the capital budget for transportation projects through the 2023 fiscal year, the Maryland Department of Transportation has proposed suspending work on the project for six years, withholding $9 million to fund initial project planning activities that would unlock federal development funds.
At a meeting in March with representatives of Charles and Prince George’s counties, Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Peter K. Rahn expressed his intention to recommend pursuing the bus option over light rail, citing concerns over the higher initial capital costs for a rail system.
Hodge was unequivocal in his condemnation of Rahn’s decision.
“Depraved indifference,” Hodge said. “Blunt-force trauma to the vision of this region.”
In a letter drafted by Hodge on behalf of the Charles County Board of Commissioners and submitted to Rahn following the March meeting, the commissioners asked Rahn to reconsider the six-year funding suspension as well as his preference for bus over rail.
“After nearly 30 years of successive studies have proven the feasibility and benefit of implementing the project, work has been repeatedly suspended and progress halted, until local and regional political pressure compelled further action — in the form of another study,” the letter said.
“Southern Maryland is the only region of the State west of the Chesapeake Bay without access to some form of passenger rail transit,” the letter continued. “Our citizens deserve the same quality of transit service that other regions of Maryland have enjoyed for decades.”
At the meeting, Scott Anderson, acting chairman of the St. Mary’s County Transit Advisory Committee, said that developers would be more confident investing in projects planned near fixed rail stations rather than around bus stations that could be moved, closed or even canceled. As an example, Anderson pointed to the Potomac Yard Shopping Center being built in Alexandria, Va.
“There’s already millions of dollars in development around a Metro station that isn’t even there yet,” Anderson said. “Development can come in before the work is done, as long as the developers are confident that it will be there.”
Hodge said that a strong show of public support could break the current stalemate with the state department of transportation. He encouraged residents to attend the annual MDOT “tour meeting” on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at the Charles County Government Building in La Plata, at which Rahn will meet with the county commissioners to review and discuss the state’s transportation priorities.
“We’ve worked the bureaucracy. We’ve worked the planning process. We’ve lined up all the elected officials top to bottom,” Hodge said in an interview following the meeting. “But to bring this home, the chief policymakers at the state level have to see the public demanding action from them.”
“The capstone that will clinch it for us is getting the public mobilized to express themselves,” Hodge said. “If we can succeed in doing that, I think we’re going to bring it home.”
Highlights of Monday’s meeting will be posted on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/transformwaldorf.