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Top Maryland Transportation Official Lays Out Priorities

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Smith wants to give priority to transit projects in Maryland.
WAMU/Elliott Francis
Smith wants to give priority to transit projects in Maryland.

At an age when many people are enjoying retirement, James T. Smith is starting a new job. Following a long career in government service as a judge and Democratic office holder, Smith, 71, became Maryland's Secretary of Transportation in early June, filling a post that had been open for one year following the resignation of Beverley Swaim-Staley.

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, Smith explained his priorities would cover all modes of transportation infrastructure now that the state is expected to receive a windfall in new revenues from a gasoline tax increase, more than $4 billion over the next six years.

“I'm not wedded to any one approach to addressing our transportation needs. We have to build a transportation network,” said Smith, a former circuit court judge and two-term Baltimore County executive.

Smith made clear transit projects will continue to receive priority attention during his administration.

“I think one of the biggest challenges I’m going to have is getting all the really important projects that are pent up in the queue out into the field,” said Smith, who said Maryland has spent more time planning than building infrastructure in recent years.

“We have lot of projects that everybody concedes are the priority projects. You have the Purple Line in Montgomery. You have the CCT [Corridor Cities Transitway] in Montgomery. You have the Red Line in the Baltimore Metropolitan Area,” Smith said. “You have interchanges on I-270. We have to finish up the ICC to Route 1. We have bridges to look at.”

Smith said Maryland is prepared to ask under the Federal Transit Administration's discretionary New Starts program for matching funds to complete the 16-mile Purple Line light rail system between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. MDOT is also considering turning the project over to the private sector to operate it as part of a public-private partnership.

“It lends itself to that. We have all above ground right of way. We have a lot of interest,” said the new transportation secretary.

When asked about his philosophy, to what extent he believes highway expansions should be part of Maryland’s portfolio, Smith said the state will have to look at all options to meet the demands placed on the transportation grid by job and population growth.

“Those who espouse a mass transit-oriented, metropolitan approach have certainly been heard and they will continue to be heard because they have a great message. It won't be the only message that will be heard,” he said. “We have to look at all the options and how we maximize that infrastructure to the best advantage… one that reduces congestion, protects the environment, and stimulates economic activity and jobs. I don’t think any one mode of transportation and answers all those needs.”

Maryland transportation officials have opposed the idea of building another Potomac River bridge to Virginia, but Smith says he's open to considering such a project—depending on the findings of a study now being performed by the two states.

“I'm open to seeing what the study says. There's no point in participating in a study if you have already made up your mind, and that is not the case here,” he said.

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