A 40-year-old provision in state law that gives the nine counties of the Eastern Shore the ability to block big-ticket transportation projects may be in jeopardy.
Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has introduced legislation to repeal the shore counties’ special status.
In an interview, Miller said local leaders should not have the power to block transportation projects — in this case, toll-funded roads and bridges — deemed a priority by the state.
“We need a state government and a governor and a state planning department looking at the transportation needs for the entire state,” he said. “We cannot enable one county or a combination of counties to have veto power over our transportation.”
Miller’s legislation might also be a statement — less about reversing the Eastern Shore law than about sending a message to lawmakers from other parts of the state who are also seeking veto power over major highway projects.
In 2016, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) ordered the Maryland Transportation Authority to study potential options for a new Chesapeake Bay crossing. Planners came up with 14 alternatives.
After MdTA winnowed the list to three, all in close proximity to the two existing spans, Hogan said “the only serious way forward” was a bridge directly adjacent to the current crossings, connecting Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties.
Hogan’s declaration sparked concern among some Anne Arundel County residents and officials, who complained that local roads near the bridge are already swarming with commuters and beach-bound traffic. It also prompted Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) to seek legislation giving his constituents the same veto powers that Eastern Shore counties have.
The provision giving Eastern Shore counties the ability to block proposed toll roads or bridges was enacted in 1978, just five years after the second span of the Bay Bridge opened to traffic.
The head of the Queen Anne’s County Commission said he is puzzled why Miller is taking action now.
“I don’t know what his underlying motives are,” said James J. Moran (R). “If he says it’s bad policy, well, it’s been there since 1978 and it’s been there all through his tenure, so why now?”
Miller’s proposal, Senate Bill 1069, will be referred to the Rules Committee because it was filed well after the regular deadline for legislation. But given his record-setting status as the chamber’s leader, it’s difficult to imagine the measure not getting an airing.
“I’m certain that the three senators from the Shore are going to fight like hell to kill the bill,” Miller said.
Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) said Miller hasn’t discussed his proposal with lawmakers from the affected counties.
“I don’t know why he’s interested in doing that,” said Hershey. “We still believe that it does have some merit as far as a major highway that may go down the center of the Eastern Shore. So we’re not willing to give that up right away without even having a discussion on why it’s necessary.”
Some lawmakers from the Washington, D.C., suburbs have sought to expand the Shore’s veto power statewide, as a way of thwarting — or at least forcing concessions to — the Hogan administration’s controversial plan to add Express Toll Lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. That legislation is highly unlikely to pass.
On Monday, Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), the chief sponsor of the “county consent” bill in the Senate, was asked about Miller’s proposal to strip all local veto power from state law.
“It’s a strong message, isn’t it?” she said.