The ICC. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

On Monday, Governor Martin O’Malley will announce which Montgomery County transportation projects he will support with funds from the new transportation bill passed earlier this year. While there may be good news about transit, advocates are concerned about the selection process and new highway projects that may receive funding.

After years of a dwindling transportation trust fund, Maryland is ready to get started on a large backlog of important transportation projects. While the new Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act will raise $4.4 billion over the next 6 years, it’s not enough to finance all the competing priorities. It is unclear how state leaders will decide how to allocate the money.

Advocates from 10 organizations working in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who supported the bill released a letter today applauding funding pledged so far for transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. But they also raised concerns over new highway capacity projects and a project selection process done behind closed doors. 

Unlike Northern Virginia, there is no clear public process for project selection for transportation funding in Maryland. In the fall, MDOT will release their draft project list and hold a series of open houses, but only after the O’Malley administration has spent the spring and summer announcing the projects it will fund.

So how do transportation funding decisions really happen in Maryland? One important influence is “priority letters,” from each county telling the state which projects they want funding for. But the letters themselves are often not created with much public input, and while the Montgomery and Prince George’s letters embrace some transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, both focus heavily on roads.

An important influence in Maryland’s transportation funding decisions should be the stated goals of the Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). It includes several important goals that ought to be used as selection criteria for funding, including doubling transit ridership by 2020, encouraging transit-oriented development and smart growth, prioritizing system preservation, and preservation of the natural environment and rural resource lands. Just last week, O’Malley made a major announcement regarding his plan to tackle climate change, which includes investment in public transit and transit-oriented development as a core strategy.

Despite a stated commitment to smart growth, climate protection, and system preservation, O’Malley’s list of projects for Prince George’s includes two major new road capacity projects that direct hundreds of millions of dollars far from Metro stations or inside-the-Beltway communities. $150 million would go towards a new interchange at MD 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) and the Suitland Parkway, which would fuel the 6,000-acre Westphalia greenfield scheme. Such an investment promises to undermine local and state goals of encouraging transit-oriented development at the county’s 15 underutilized Metro stations.

O’Malley will announce Monday which projects he will fund in Montgomery, but if the county’s priority letter is any indication, his list will include road projects that may work against smart growth goals. Four of these projects are road widenings and interchanges along the Route 28/198 corridor. These projects alone would cost $500 million dollars, while drawing commuters and toll revenue away from the already underutilized Intercounty Connector, which runs parallel to the road.

Meanwhile, previous announcements indicate that Maryland may use a public-private partnership, effectively borrowing against future revenues, to help pay for the Purple Line. Governor O’Malley has already pledged $280 million for design and right-of-way acquisition, but in order to open by 2020 as scheduled, the light-rail line needs $1.1 billion of local funding.

A partnership with a private company would enable the state to pay for the project over a longer time horizon. But because the Purple Line is the top priority for both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, transit advocates are asking that state funds not go to lower-priority projects until it is certain that alternative financing is really a good deal for taxpayers and riders.

Since there will never be unlimited funds for transportation, the state’s investments for suburban Maryland should go towards projects that are consistent with the state’s long-stated smart growth and climate protection goals. If Maryland wants to address the area’s traffic challenges and air and water pollution, the state must make building the Purple Line, funding the MARC Growth and Investment Plan, and WMATA’s Momentum plan its top priorities.