Annapolis light rail bill gets chilly reception

By ANDREW CHILDERS, The Capital
Published February 27, 2008

Lawmakers wary of dictating transportation planning will likely derail a pair of bills designed to explore connecting Annapolis to neighboring cities by train, despite a local lawmaker's attempts to make them more feasible. Del. Ron George, R-Annapolis, is pushing for a study of connecting Annapolis to Baltimore and Washington, D.C., with light rail, as well as exploring the feasibility of running train service in the city itself.

Mr. George's legislation mirrors a bill submitted by Sen. John Astle, D-Annapolis, at the city's request.

But the legislation received a chilly reception from the House Environmental Matters Committee yesterday. House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-St. Mary's, worried about "political transportation planning" interfering with the Department of Transportation.

Officials with the Department of Transportation also opposed the studies, saying the legal mandates usurped its authority and could open the floodgate for politicians looking to circumvent the state planning process.

"We may have 50 more next year for projects people think are important," Maryland Transit Administration Director of External Affairs James Knighton said.

Mr. George and Mr. Astle are not the only ones who have attempted an end run around Maryland's five-year transit planning process. Last year, Del. David Rudolph, D-Cecil, submitted a bill requesting a feasibility study to extend the MARC train service to Elkton. The matter was resolved administratively through negotiations with planners, which committee Vice Chairman James Malone, D-Baltimore County, called a better solution.

"I think the administration has been clear they're going to do everything they can," he said.

The request for the studies comes at a time when the Maryland Transit Administration's coffers are unusually bountiful. For fiscal 2009, the Maryland Transit Administration will have a $358.7 million capital budget, compared with $323.5 million this year.

Projects include $27 million to improve the Camden, Brunswick and Penn MARC commuter rails and $4 million to start developing the 16-mile Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

An early Department of Legislative Services analysis of the two bills estimated they would cost the state more than $800,000 over the next two fiscal years. After meeting with the Department of Transportation, Mr. George said he already is proposing a longer window for the study, allowing the state to conduct it in-house rather than hire a contractor, which should reduce the price tag and make it more palatable to lawmakers.

Even if the bills fail to pass, Mr. George said he expects to have the leverage to get the rail studies into the state planning pipeline.

"I think MDOT knows if we come back next year and it's not in the study, this will give us some strength to get it done," he said.

(Revised Feb 2008)