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Montgomery Pols Fume as State Ends Funding for Transit Project

Did the Hogan administration just effectively kill a long-debated public transit project in Montgomery County?

Or was the proposal already on life support without key Montgomery County policymakers and transit advocates knowing or acknowledging it?

Either way, county lawmakers sounded the alarm Monday when they noticed that the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) was pulling additional planning and engineering funding from the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed 16-mile bus rapid transit line that, as envisioned, would run between the Shady Grove Metro station and Clarksburg. The state has already invested $38 million in planning for the transit line.

“From all indications, the project is dead,” said state Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery), who represents many of the Upcounty communities where the transit line was supposed to run.

The state’s decision to essentially transfer jurisdiction over the Corridor Cities Transitway to the county government was embedded in the recently-released Consolidated Transportation Program draft, a 299-page document that lists road and transit projects the state plans to fund over the next six years.

In terse, cryptic language, the state justified its decision to halt funding for the transitway by saying, “Project 30% designed, transferred to Montgomery County.”

In an email to Maryland Matters Monday, Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for MDOT, said the state’s move should come as no surprise to Montgomery officials. Last year’s six-year planning document, she said, signaled that the project would be transferred to the county at the end of calendar year 2018, when 30% of the planning was expected to have been completed. The transfer in fact took place more recently, in July.

“MDOT invested $38 million in the CCT to deliver the project design along with an approved environmental assessment from the Federal Transit Administration,” Henson wrote. “This bus route is solely located in one county making Montgomery County the lead for future work on this local project.”

But Reznik said members of the county’s legislative delegation received written assurances from Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn earlier this year that state support for the transitway would continue. And County Councilmember Tom Hucker (D), chairman of the Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee, said fully funding a transportation project of this magnitude “would be way outside the scope of what the county has ever done.”

The estimated cost of the project tops $800 million.

Montgomery leaders said the administration’s decision to end funding for the transit line especially rankles because Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is pushing an expensive and controversial widening of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

A transit link from the Shady Grove Metro stop, where the Red Line ends, to Upcounty communities has been debated in Montgomery County for almost two decades, and state planning funding has intermittently been made available, though it was often been delayed or withheld. The project was originally envisioned as a light rail line but has morphed into a bus rapid-transit line.

“The CCT will provide faster, more direct transportation between residential and major employment areas in the I-270 corridor,” MDOT said in last year’s five-year planning document. “It will enhance access to Shady Grove station and employment areas, increase capacity of congested roadways, support economic development consistent with local master plans, and reduce environmental impacts.”

Even with on and off state funding, county officials for several years have described the Corridor Cities Transitway as their second highest transit priority, behind the completion of the Purple Line. It has also been a priority of many large Upcounty employers and the Universities of Maryland at Shady Grove, and several residential and commercial developments have sprouted up running north from Gaithersburg in anticipation of the transit line coming through.

Some policymakers have suggested that a successful transit line in Montgomery could eventually be extended north to Frederick.

“I’m still digesting this,” Hucker said of the state’s decision to pull funding from the project. “But it’s shocking. It’s a shocking abandonment of the tens of thousands of people who have been counting on it since the 1990’s.”

Benjamin Ross, chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, said MDOT’s decision to halt state support for the transitway is another reminder of the administration’s preference for highway construction over transit. It’s reminiscent, he said, of Hogan’s decision to pull the plug on the Red Line transit project in Baltimore, which had already secured federal funding, and of the state’s reluctance to fund a proposed Southern Maryland light rail project.

“It’s part of a statewide pattern,” Ross said.

Hogan administration officials reject the criticism that the governor is hostile to transit, noting that Purple Line construction is well under way, and that the governor committed to record Maryland support for the Washington, D.C., area Metro system.

Henson said that mounting state financial commitments for Metro and the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates the MARC commuter train and Baltimore-area transit service, are in fact reducing the capital funding available for transportation projects across the state.

What’s more, Henson said, there is some opportunity for future state funding for the bus line. The Hogan administration’s proposal to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 with funding from new privately-operated tolls, she said, would direct 10% of the  revenues that the private toll vendor turns over to the state “to fund transit projects such as the Corridor Cities Transitway.”

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Montgomery Pols Fume as State Ends Funding for Transit Project