EASTON — Lawmakers compromised on a controversial transportation project scoring system this past legislative session, clearing the way for more time to study and develop a system that works for both urban and rural areas of the state.
The bill means “business as usual” for now as a task force will take the next year to look at and compare various scoring systems, before making a final recommendation to state lawmakers in 2018, said Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore.
Rural county elected officials were worried last year after the passage of a bill in the General Assembly that required the Maryland Department of Transportation to develop a new scoring system.
Republicans argued the scoring system has goals that, when added up to create a score, are weighted heavily in favor of mass transit projects in urban areas with higher populations. Republicans also accused Democrats of pushing the bill through to secure funding for mass transit projects that were put on hold.
Gov. Larry Hogan was fiercely opposed to the bill, saying the system would kill transportation projects not just in rural areas, but across the state.
Democrats argued last year, however, that the bill was to provide for more transparency in the transportation funding projects; there was suspicion that the Maryland Department of Transportation was putting too much money into nonessential projects in rural areas and not enough in urban areas. The bill also provided for the governor to fund a lower scoring project over a higher scoring project with a written explanation.
Hogan made repealing the scoring system his top priority for the 2017 legislative session and submitted legislation to do just that. The bill, however, was heavily watered down under compromise between the administration and the legislature’s democratic leadership.
The bill from this session that was signed by the governor delays implementation of the scoring system while a task force works through a pilot scoring system, taking notes from states like Virginia, which doesn’t score urban areas against rural areas.
Eckardt said the task force also will look at the criteria used in the scoring system and how it matches with others in use in other states. It essentially creates an experimental model, she said.
It allows counties to continue their usual business in how they advocate to the state to fund transportation projects.
Talbot County Councilman Laura Price said the county has had the same transportation projects listed as its priorities since she’s been in office. Price was elected to the council in 2010.
Price said the scoring system delay and experimental model being moved forward “makes a lot of sense, because you can’t compare an urban county with a rural county.”
“Even in the urban counties, the vast majority of people are still using roads to get around, not mass transit,” Price said. “Mass transit is always highly subsidized. It won’t pay for itself, so to put more dollars into that and have our roads continue to be clogged, no matter what county we’re in — it’s a safety issue.”
Under the current transportation funding system, Maryland Department of Transportation officials make rounds across the state to get priority projects from counties for consideration into the state’s Consolidated Transportation Plan, a process that would not have been changed under the original scoring system legislation.
One of Talbot’s priority projects is at U.S. Route 50 and state Route 662, which will come into play when the University of Maryland Shore Regional Health opens a new hospital just north of Easton around 2022, Price said.
Talbot’s proposal is to construct an overpass at routes 50 and 662 to help serve increasing traffic needs for the Easton Airport, Talbot County Community Center and the new hospital, which is still in planning stages. The county also is asking for capacity and safety improvements to state Route 309 where it meets Route 50 in the same area, due to heavy traffic during peak hours from northern Caroline County.