Cars in traffic by eddie welker licensed under Creative Commons.

This was one of GGWash’s most popular articles in 2020. We’re sharing some of our hits again over the holiday season.

The Greater Washington region is home to some of the worst traffic and longest commutes in the country, and that’s especially true in Southern Maryland.

In 2017 alone, commuters in Charles County spent an average of 388 hours traveling to and from work, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of U.S. Census data. That adds up to nearly two and a half weeks, narrowly beating out Virginia’s Fauqier and Stafford counties for the dubious distinction of America’s costliest commute.

And as construction begins on a new edition of the Harry Nice Bridge, set to open in 2023 with twice as many lanes as its predecessor, the traffic stats for U.S. Route 301 and Maryland Route 5 will likely only get worse. Planners now expect the population of Charles County and its nearest neighbors, southern Prince George’s and northern St. Mary’s Counties, to reach 549,139 by 2040, a 25% increase from the 439,158 residents this same area was estimated to have in 2015.

“We’re getting all of the worst statistics ever,” Delegate Debra M. Davis (D-Charles) said. “Our region has the highest number of fatalities per capita on the roads, we have the highest number of people traveling on the roads, and we expect it to get worse because of the Nice Bridge.”

But Southern Maryland has actually had a proposal for a partial solution in the works for more than two decades: a light rail project called SMRT, or Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project.

The SMRT plan

This 18.7-mile-long light rail project, first proposed in the 1990s, would stretch from Branch Avenue at the southern end of WMATA’s Green Line in Prince George’s County to White Plains in Charles County, just south of the area’s largest community, Waldorf. Most of the line—12.8 miles of it—would be in Prince George’s County, with another 5.9 miles in Charles County. The preferred arrangement would include 13 stops along the way, including stations at Joint Base Andrews and the Southern Maryland Hospital Center.

The SMRT alignment map by Charles County.

Advocates for the line say it would ideally be light rail, as multiple studies suggest a bus rapid transit alternative would reach full capacity as soon as it opened. Area planners have even begun setting the stage for transit-oriented development, much of it centered around downtown Waldorf and Brandywine Crossing, a Prince George’s shopping center that sits near the line with Charles County.

Southern Maryland planners know these things because SMRT has already been the subject of five different state studies over the past 25 years—first in 1996, and most recently in 2017. And yet, despite Southern Maryland’s intense congestion and extensive transit plans, SMRT falls low on the official list of Maryland’s transit priorities.

Political headwinds

When Maryland’s General Assembly first passed legislation in 2017 to create a “scoring criteria” for prioritizing the state’s transportation projects, SMRT initially ranked third out of 73 projects statewide, said Gary Hodge, a former Charles County Commissioner and a longtime advocate for the SMRT Project.

Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill that year, and the ranking criteria he signed into law in 2018 was less transit friendly: Proposed toll lanes on I-495 and I-270 scored a perfect 500 points under the new system, while SMRT fell to 36th of 38 projects in the state.

[Also on GGWash: Is Maryland getting serious about MARC trains to Virginia?]

SMRT didn’t even get a mention in the MTA’s 2019 Consolidated Transit Plan budget, despite a pledge from Maryland’s then-Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn to study the feasibility of carrying out the project as bus rapid transit, say Davis and state Senator Arthur Ellis, both Democrats who represent Charles County.

Frustrated by the thought of further delays, Davis and Ellis introduced legislation in January that they hope will finally move SMRT forward. Their bills would dedicate $12 million in the 2022 budget and $15 million in 2023 so MDOT can complete a federal environmental review. It’s a complex and technical process, Davis said, but it’s needed in order to finalize a mode of transit for SMRT, and in order to secure federal funding for it.

Prince George’s County has been a crucial supporter of SMRT, as it would host eight of the line’s 13 proposed stops. The county council has voted unanimously to support the bill, and 21 of the 33 co-sponsors for Davis’s bill represent parts of Prince George’s. A January 28 hearing in the House Appropriations Committee featured supportive testimony from the county’s Department of Public Works & Transportation as well as staffers representing the county executive and a county councilmember. Davis and Ellis’s bills have also been endorsed as “priority legislation” by the Maryland Transit Caucus, whose membership includes delegates and senators from around the state, including both Central and Southern Maryland.

Support from the governor seems to be another matter. In a recent spat between Ellis and Hogan over transportation problems in Southern Maryland, Hogan cited funds for the Nice Bridge as evidence of his work to improve conditions. He suggested to a reporter at Maryland Matters that the SMRT plan isn’t practical:

“If there are some good ideas that folks have about future transit to Southern Maryland, we’re all ears,” Hogan added, “but at this point there is no funding and no plan and no ideas.”

More than any specific legislation, Davis, Ellis, Hodge, and SMRT’s various other supporters are continuing to try to move SMRT forward because of the region-wide impact they say it would have on people’s everyday lives.

“It’s not just about transportation,” Davis said. “It’s about quality of life for the residents, it’s about being a parent, it’s about economic development, it’s about tax dollars.”