Q&A: Maryland Transportation Secretary James Smith

The former county executive says that Maryland's new transportation funding package was key to his decision to take the cabinet-level post.
by | July 29, 2013 AT 5:00 PM

This summer, James Smith was named Maryland’s transportation secretary. He takes over a position that had been vacant for more than a year following the resignation of his predecessor, Beverley Swaim-Staley. Previously, Smith served as a circuit court judge and county executive in Baltimore County. He takes the helm just as Maryland passed a major transportation funding overhaul that will eventually generate $800 million annually in extra transportation revenue. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did Gov. Martin O’Malley pick you for this position?

In Baltimore County, I was very aggressive pushing transportation as well as pushing economic development and creating jobs. That’s the theme of Maryland. They had the courage to pass the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act, and they wanted someone who had experience in getting things done. Plus, I have a great relationship with the governor, and I have a very good relationship with many in the General Assembly because I was very active in Annapolis as county executive.

This appears in our free Infrastructure e-newsletter. Not already a subscriber? Click here.

I imagine passage of the funding overhaul played a big role in your decision to take the job?

I’m a realist. I wasn’t interested before. The governor’s office -- not the governor directly -- felt me out about a year ago as to whether I’d be willing to take this. Frankly, a year ago, I wasn’t. It’s not that I didn’t respect the importance of the job. But if all I was going to be able to do was figure out how to say ‘no’ as many polite ways as possible, I wasn't really interested in doing that.

I’m very excited to be here. All my expectations have been confirmed with regard to the support the department has within the General Assembly and the administration, and in the talent and commitment of the people who work here. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to always enjoy my job, and I’ve had a lot of different jobs.

The new funding package doesn’t make your two proposed transit lines a done deal. What’s the path forward on those?

It helps a lot. What the Investment Act has done is made available, for the Purple Line [in the D.C. suburbs], $280 million so we can do the final engineering and right of way acquisition. It’s a critical step. With regard to the Red Line [in Baltimore], it’s allowed for $170 million for the same thing.

For construction, we’re looking at taking advantage of our P3 legislation. It will depend on the makeup of that partnership what the costs are going to be down the road. We want to get a reaction from the private sector as to how much they want to be involved. That will be coming out in the next couple of months.

How do you balance the fact that you’re doing things like widening the Baltimore beltway with this administration’s promotion of transit? Are those things at odds?

I think it comes down to our desire to provide a transportation network where we have a lot of options for people. We also accept the realities of our past. Metro and mass transit is more effective in the Washington area than it is in the Baltimore area. The Baltimore area needs additional mass transit, but it’s not in a position to take the place of roads. It is in a place to add to the network of transportation options.

We’re still going to have to look at ways to create more connections, probably with buses in the Baltimore area, and we’re looking at other options in the Washington area like bus rapid transit. You really want to have a network where people can get where they want to go as often on mass transit as possible. But if that isn’t possible, we want them to get where they want to go as safely and as timely as possible [with roads]. We look at the whole picture.

Do you think the passage of a big transportation funding packages in Maryland and few other states this year might prompt the feds to take some bold action?

I hope so. I think it shows that local jurisdictions will bite the bullet to do what has to be done. This has to be done for the prosperity of our country and for our quality of life. It has to be done across the country and the federal government is responsible for supporting that.

The idea is for the federal government to determine a consistent source of funding for federal transportation programs, and then commit to that. Whether that will happen is somewhat up in the air. We’re counting on consistent, financial support for transportation from the federal government because these projects take years.