Federal funding marks milestone for light rail project

Proponents of the decades-long effort to bring a light rail connection to Southern Maryland celebrated a major victory on Monday when U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) presented Maryland state and Charles County officials with a symbolic check for $5 million in federal funding to help kickstart the next phase of the proposed Southern Maryland Rapid Transit (SMRT) project.

The money, which Cardin and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) secured in federal omnibus funding legislation, was needed in order to unlock an additional $5 million from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to begin undertaking the initial design and engineering work on the proposed 19-mile rapid transit corridor between the Branch Avenue Metro station in Prince George’s County to a terminus in the Waldorf-White Plains area, paralleling Routes 5 and 301.

The combined federal and state money will be used to undertake an environmental study to ensure the project complies with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is required before ground can be broken on the project. The NEPA assessment is estimated to cost $27 million. The Federal Transit Administration will then use the results of the NEPA study to prepare what’s called a “record of decision,” which will determine whether the SMRT project will take the form of a light rail line, as many local transit activists and supporters — and Charles County’s elected officials — hope, or a bus rapid transit system.

A 2017 study by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) said that a light rail line offered greater expandability to keep pace with growing ridership, but a bus system would cost around $500 million less to construct.

When the MTA report came out, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn made it clear that he strongly favored the bus option, and even went so far as to order that the $27 million for the NEPA study be withdrawn from the state’s transportation capital budget — a move that local and state officials hotly contested throughout the remainder of Rahn’s tenure.

However, with Rahn’s sudden, unexpected departure at the end of 2019 — unfortunately, right around the time that TLR went into hibernation — the state’s opposition to light rail quietly melted away; under Rahn’s successor Greg Slater, the former director of the State Highway Administration, Charles County’s delegation to the State House eventually found a legislative path forward.

For the 2021 legislative session, Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) and Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) each pre-filed bills that would restore the NEPA study funding contingent on matching federal funds. Unlike in previous years, when similar bills had never made it out of committee, this time the legislation sailed through to passage, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) allowed it to pass into law without his signature.

The law requires MDOT to allocate $5 million a year for five years to conduct the NEPA study, provided that Congress allocates matching amounts each year as well — hence the importance of Monday’s ceremony for ensuring the project can get started.

According to Maryland Department of Legislative Services policy analysts, “[t]he timing of the mandated appropriations and the total amount that must redirected from fiscal [years] 2023 through 2027 cannot be reliably estimated, as it depends on whether (and when) federal funds are made available for the study.”

TLR is endeavoring to learn whether the Maryland Congressional delegation has been able to secure any guarantees of the additional required match funding through fiscal year 2027, which will be necessary to keep the process moving.

Because the state’s transportation capital budget — called the Consolidated Transportation Program — does not already include funding for the NEPA study, MDOT must redirect the money allocated to the study from other existing transportation projects. TLR will attempt to find out more details about which other transportation projects will be affected by the reallocation, and report back in future updates.

A dedicated status page for the SMRT project appears to be under construction on the MDOT website; TLR will keep an eye on the page and provide a link when it formally goes live.

In addition to the $5 million allocated to the SMRT project, Cardin and Van Hollen also secured funding in the 2022 federal budget for improvements to the Route 4 corridor and the Thomas Johnson Bridge, stormwater management infrastructure improvements in Anne Arundel County, and an array of community development projects, historical and cultural programs, environmental, and public safety initiatives around Southern Maryland.