A public disagreement between state Del. Mark Fisher (R) and Charles County Commissioner Gilbert “BJ” Bowling III (D) preceded a deadlocked vote on a transportation funding request letter that the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland annually sends to the Maryland Department of Transportation.
The action took place during a virtual meeting on June 25. The issue involved the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge not being included as a funding priority in the letter. The bridge spans the Patuxent River between Calvert and St. Mary’s counties.
Earlier in the evening, the council’s executive board also did not come to agreement on the letter and voted to postpone its approval.
Calvert County Commissioner Steve Weems (R) is on the executive board and chairs the council’s Regional Infrastructure Advisory Committee that also met virtually on June 4. “I want to retreat, regroup and work toward consensus,” Weems said after Bowling, who chairs the council, noted that the council as a whole could override the executive board.
The executive board had “a very vibrant discussion,” Bowling said, adding that he voted to move forward with the letter but was in the minority. Bowling said delaying the letter might result in some complications.
What followed could be called more than a vibrant discussion, however.
At-large council member Helen Wernecke said that, while the bridge was mentioned in the second paragraph of the letter, “it was an ‘oh, by the way,’ kind of comment. It should be more prevalent,” she said. “We need the Thomas Johnson Bridge to be a priority.”
State Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) motioned that the council approve the letter, which Bowling seconded. When someone questioned whether the chair could second a motion, Bowling said he could, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, but withdrew when Del. Edith J. Patterson (D-Charles) said she would second it.
Bowling said that if the council approved the letter with “smart rail” rapid transit as the top priority, any language about the bridge could be added later in an emergency meeting.
“That is such a silly thing to say as a Southern Marylander, given the history of the bridge,” Fisher said. Noting that he used to live in Charles County, Fisher said, “I know that you know it’s inappropriate.”
“These items have been on the table a long time,” Bowling said. “It’s important for Charles County to move forward.”
State Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) said the letter “takes the number one priority since 2002 and basically shoves it in the corner.” He called the goings-on “foolhardy at this point,” to which Bowling called for a point of order.
“I’m enjoying the spirit of regional friendship in this conversation,” Charles County Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said tongue-in-cheek.
Morgan said he wasn’t sure that rapid transit was the No. 1 priority of Southern Maryland, then Bowling called for a vote.
John Hartline, the council’s executive director, noted that a quorum was 11 votes.
The vote deadlocked at 6-6. Those who voted yes were: state Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), Davis, Patterson, Bowling, Collins and at-large member Ellen Flowers-Fields. Those who voted no were: Fisher, Morgan, Commissioner Thomas E. “Tim” Hutchins (R-Calvert), Weems, St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) and Werneke.
Eighteen members were not present and did not vote.
Hutchins then suggested the council request that the three county commissions reconfirm their positions. That was agreed to on a voice vote. Bowling said the commissioners should get their responses back to the council by Tuesday, June 30, with the council meeting virtually again on Thursday, July 2.
Hutchins added, “Whoever is available is there. If not, they missed the vote.”
The impasse follows the Calvert commissioners’ decision to remove the bridge as the top priority from their transportation funding list on March 3. The commissioners put Route 231 improvements at the top, followed by widening Route 2/4 in Prince Frederick and then the bridge.
The council’s proposed letter mentioned the bridge, but it wasn’t in the funding request list specifically. In addition to rapid transit, other projects mentioned included Route 2/4 widening, a regional transportation hub at the College of Southern Maryland in Hughesville, the U.S. 301 corridor and regional transportation support (commuter bus services), according to Weems.
“When you can’t meet face to face, it’s hard to synchronize our message,” he said after the meeting, adding that state highway revenue funds are going to be cut because of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. “We may have a paradigm shift in transportation due to the pandemic.”
He also noted that the state has a new transportation secretary, Greg Slater.
Van Hollen speaks
At the beginning of the June 25 virtual meeting, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) reminded the council that a provision that would fund the bridge was included in a transportation authorization bill through a new bridge grant program. The bill passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously, “but has a very long way to travel before it becomes law and is fully funded.”
Van Hollen added that he’s written to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chau asking for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or Build, grant funding for Southern Maryland Rapid Transit to create a line from White Plains in Charles County to the Branch Avenue Metrorail Station in Prince George’s County.
Also, at the meeting, the council approved a fiscal year 2020-2021 budget of $4.65M, a reduction from the current fiscal year budget of $6.75M.