Md. transportation secretary talks Purple Line, HOT Lanes

HANOVER, Md. – One month into his tenure as Maryland Transportation Secretary, Jim Smith has a lot on his to-do list.

A new gas tax could raise about $800 million per year and $4.4 billion over the next six years for transportation projects.

Smith sat down with WTOP in his first in-depth interview into transportation and his priorities for Maryland.

“The top thing I want to get accomplished in my tenure is to get those many, many projects that have been studied and designed that have been in the queue for several years and get them in the field and constructed,” he says.

“My goal is to get these projects into the communities to improve safety, alleviate congestion and stimulate economic growth in Maryland.”

When asked, Smith wouldn’t identify a specific project that he hopes to get accomplished, but rather took a holistic approach to get as many projects done as possible. Nonetheless, Smith did identify several projects he believes would make a big difference for commuters between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

“There’s no one silver bullet to solve traffic problems for everyone. But certainly the Purple Line is an important project that we’re forward with $280 million of final design,” he says.

Earlier this week, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced several projects to improve congestion in Prince George’s County, including money to push the Purple Line closer to construction.

The Purple Line is a 16-mile light rail transit project that would connect Bethesda to New Carrollton and several points in between that would integrate with Metro, MARC and other transportation systems. The Maryland Transit Administration hopes to begin construction in 2015 and begin service in 2020.

Maryland transportation officials have been lobbying local companies toward a public-private partnership to help build and operate the Purple Line. The 495 Express Lanes in Virginia is an example of public-private partnership between the state and Transurban-Flour. The Maryland General Assembly passed a law this year allowing for public-private partnerships, which will play an integral role with state and federal dollars to build the Purple Line.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who is running for Governor, played a key role in both the public-private partnership law and working on attracting companies to the Purple Line.

Smith adds that while there’s a perception that the Purple Line will be competing against Baltimore’s proposed Red Line for federal dollars, he doesn’t agree and believes both projects can be built.

Smith also points toward the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) as another project he hopes to push forward with the help of Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. The CCT would connect the Shady Grove Metro station and the Metropolitan Grove MARC station in Gaithersburg and to Clarksburg through bus- rapid transit on bus-only lanes, bypassing Interstate 270.

“Like the Purple Line, it’s going to benefit everyone in that region. It’s going to improve safety, it’s going to reduce congestion on I-270 and it has the full support of the Montgomery County government and this department,” he says.

Gov. O’Malley recently announced $100 million toward final designs, engineering and right-of-way acquisition, all the steps necessary before finding money to construct it.

“It’s going to get a big push towards the finish line. It won’t get it there, although we intend to get it there. But like the Purple Line, we also think this lends itself to a public-private partnership. We intend to get it finished,” says Smith.

The Purple Line is further along than the CCT, but Smith has an ally in Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett in both projects.

“Two major transitways, the CCT from Shady Grove to Clarksburg and the Purple Line from Bethesda to Prince George’s County are our highest and co-equal priorities,” writes Leggett in a 2011 Transportation Priority Letter sent to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Leggett and Smith recently met for more than an hour to discuss both projects.

But what about road projects?

Gov. O’Malley announced plans to improve various interchanges on Indian Head Highway, Suitland Parkway, Branch Avenue in Prince George’s County and I-270 at Watkins Mill Road, but there were no grand ideas.

No discussion of HOT Lanes, no discussion of widening highways or bus on shoulder projects along the interstates.

Virginia already has the 495 Express Lanes and similar lanes are being constructed on I-95. The Virginia Department of Transportation has also put out a Request for Information (RFI) to explore similar options on Interstate 66 in Fairfax and Prince William counties.

So are those ideas being discussed in Maryland?

Transportation Secretary Jim Smith says no.

“We have some new HOT Lanes on I-95 north of the Baltimore tunnels and we want to have some experience with respect of the impact of that approach first, but our main focus right now is on getting some of the construction into the field that’s been pent up in demand for four or five years,” he says.

Leggett also made no mention of HOT Lanes or expanding capacity on I-270 or the Capital Beltway in his recent meeting with Smith, even though Leggett wrote in 2011:

“Other regionally significant projects with high priority (to Montgomery County) are the widening of I-270 for HOT or HOV lanes north of Shady Grove and the widening of I-495 for HOT or HOV lanes between the I-270 west spur at the American Legion Bridge. While there are issues to be worked out on important aspects of some of these priorities, decisions must be made and funding must be identified promptly to move them forward to completion.”

Smith says this isn’t realistic.

“There are so many priorities that are already queue that we’re concentrating on them. Adding lanes or other modifications to 495 or 270 is not something that’s on the radar right now. We have our plate full right now,” he says.

The public will learn a lot more about how Maryland will use the new transportation money when the Maryland Department of Transportation issues a six- year Consolidated Transportation Program report on Sept. 3. The comprehensive list gives a county-by-county breakdown of all the projects that will get money and how it’ll impact congestion in the region.

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