Legislators review state bill process

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), left, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s), right, have a conversation following the conclusion of a commissioner open session at the Waldorf West Library in St. Charles last year.

In an effort to jump-start light rail transit along the U.S. 301 and Route 5 corridor, Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) is buckling down on Senate Bill 105, which he sponsored last year to restore funding for key studies that the state transportation department has repeatedly denied.

The bill, which Ellis introduced on Jan 9. in Annapolis before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, requires the governor to include an appropriation of $12 million from the Transportation Trust Fund in fiscal year 2022 and another $15 million in FY 2023 for Maryland Department of Transportation officials to promptly “undertake all steps necessary” that would advance the project, which includes having a series of environmental studies conducted.

“The bill would call for environmental studies and engineering work to bring transportation solutions to the Southern Maryland corridor,” Ellis told the Maryland Independent via phone last week. “It’s a strong statement to the governor about our priorities and he has priorities that we have to approve also. We have to work together as elected officials to help every corner of the state.”

A Bloomberg analysis released last year showed that Charles County residents have the costliest commute in the nation as the average commuter spends a total of 388 hours driving to and from work each year, while Calvert and Prince George’s commuters chalked up 332 and 309 hours, respectively.

“Our residents and the people of Southern Maryland are the ones feeling the pain every workday,” said Ellis, emphasizing that a light rail system would take more than 20,000 commuters off of the road. “It’s just horrendous and there needs to be a solution.”

In fact, Bloomberg’s analysis noted that eight of the top 10 costliest commutes are in the D.C. metropolitan area. A 2018 study of Charles County’s workforce — commissioned by the county’s economic development department — found that 64% of residents worked outside of the county, primarily in the District and Prince George’s County.

“The Bloomberg article is not new news,” Charles County Economic Development Department Director Darrell Brown told the Independent last year. “We have known for some time now that we have longer commuter times. The way we look at it, this is old news repackaged.”

“We travel the same roads and we all add to the congestion that we’re trying to relieve right now,” Ellis said. “This is a regional issue.”

Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced in July his decision to withhold nearly $250 million in funding for two Southern Maryland projects, both of which were designated by the Maryland General Assembly. One of the two “fenced-off” allocations that were withheld included a special fund appropriation of $2.5 million that would have been used to acquire rights to land along the proposed 19-mile light rail corridor, connecting the Branch Avenue Metro station in Prince George’s to the White Plains area.

Hogan said he intended to redistribute the money, that had been specifically allocated by state legislators, to fund public safety and public health priorities of his own.

In 2015, the Hogan Administration outlined a program of historic investment in infrastructure. The state transportation department has completed 1,069 projects totaling $5.9 billion over the last four years, according to a press release sent out last October.

“I don’t have to tell you that we’re tired of sitting in the traffic,” Prince George’s County Councilman Mel Franklin (D) was quoted in the Maryland Independent in April 2018 while giving a light rail pitch to community members at Gwynn Park Middle School. “The only long-term answer to solving this problem is to take thousands of cars off the road. The only real answer is rapid transit on the Route 5 corridor.”

Having spent more than three decades advocating for a light rail transit system, Regional Policy Advisors President Gary Hodge argued that bringing additional transit options to Charles County will help return some of that lost time. He said long commutes mean that residents pay more into the state’s Transportation Trust Fund through gas taxes which, in turn, is used to pay for improvements to state-owned transportation infrastructure.

When it comes to Hogan’s decision to withhold funds, Hodge said that was “anticlimactic” as it would not make sense to use the money for right-of-way acquisition before the “critical and necessary” planning phases that would establish the final alignment of the proposed route. The budget earmark offered by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee for the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit, or SMRT, project failed to address the urgent need for state funding to complete the project planning and National Environmental Policy Act process as cited in Ellis’ bill.

“The NEPA process will be a two-year effort that will conclude with what they call a record of decision on the alignment,” Hodge told the Independent during a separate interview on Friday. “The record of decision will confirm that alignment, the station locations and the transit mode that we’ll be pursuing capital money to build.”

Hodge, a former Charles County commissioner whose efforts include serving as president of the Southern Maryland Alliance for Rapid Transit and vice chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, has hosted an array of light rail rallies where he discussed findings from a SMRT study completed in 2017 by the Maryland Transit Administration.

The final report summarized options for bus and rail rapid transit along the Southern Maryland corridor, concluding that 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 D.C. metropolitan area by up to 24 minutes. It also found that light rail could be expanded more easily than bus transit to meet increased ridership, according to Hodge.

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. Former state transportation secretary Pete K. Rahn repeatedly expressed his preference for bus rapid transit, arguing that there is no point in funding environmental and engineering studies for light rail without first knowing where the funding for the entire project would come from.

Hodge, however, dismissed Rahn’s preference noting that the state’s own SMRT study concluded that buses would be running at full capacity as soon as it went into operation, and that adding more buses to a route was more expensive than adding more cars to a train.

For Hodge, another way to look at the cost of commuting is its effect on the county’s regional competitiveness. The more light rail is delayed, Hodge said, the more Southern Maryland’s “access to the national capital region will be choked off, and eventually the county will wither.”

“We have a two-pronged goal here,” Hodge said. “One is to move commuters faster to their jobs — a 36- to 43-minute ride from White Plains to the metro station at Branch Avenue, which is a remarkable time saving for commuters. But we’re also looking at the positive economic impact that this will bring to the entire corridor including Charles County.”

Franklin said Prince George’s leaders “need to get behind a project that will not only be an economic engine,” but also ease the lives of residents in Southern Maryland as traffic congestion is “a serious quality of life issue.”

“Compared to Prince George’s, Charles County is smaller,” Ellis said, “but this traffic congestion is a Prince George’s County problem, also. That’s why the Prince George’s County Council unanimously voted [on Jan. 7] to support this solution that we’re proposing in Senate Bill 105-2020.”

“We need all hands on deck, especially the support of Senator [Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.],” Ellis added. “[Miller] said on the Senate floor last year that this [light rail project] would benefit his constituents. Now he speaks for his constituents so he needs to come forward and say, ‘Yes, we will find a way to make this benefit for our constituents happen.’” Miller’s district includes parts of Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s counties.

Hodge said light rail transit will provide the capacity needed to meet future increases in ridership and deliver greater economic benefits as a catalyst for private investment and economic activity along the corridor.

“Our job is to get this bill through the budget committee and to have support to approve this bill,” said Ellis. “It’s not all or nothing; we just need to move the ball forward in a respectful, positive manner.”

Despite Ellis and Hodge having differences of opinion in the past about whether light rail transit or bus rapid transit was the best solution, Ellis said Hodge now serves on his staff as a senior transportation advisor.

“I really appreciated the fact that when he was elected, Senator Ellis gave me an opportunity to talk to him in depth about the feasibility of these options, and which option would deliver the most benefit to his constituents,” Hodge said. “From a strategic standpoint, the overwhelming benefit falls on the side of light rail as opposed to bus rapid transit.”

“If we have the political wherewithal, we will see this through,” Charles County Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said as he voiced his support during a light rail rally that Hodge hosted two years ago in Waldorf. “No matter how you look at it, it requires a partnership on the federal, local and state level.”

Some constituents like Waldorf resident Derrick Terry are not willing to jump on board light rail transit. Terry said “all parties fail to realize that Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties don’t have the population to support a light rail line.”

Hodge failed to address current counties like Howard, Frederick and Harford, Terry said, that currently have the commercial density and tourism draw, along with the population that Charles County simply does not have.

“Some residents and elected officials can’t be disinclined to population and commercial growth, yet plea for all the amenities that come with growth on the taxpayers’ dime,” said Terry. “I am a realist and demand our tax dollars be spent on sensible and constructive solutions versus ‘to be continued’ means.”

The SMRT study is available online at www.SMRTMaryland.com.

Twitter: @JClink_MdINDY