A month after Gov. Larry Hogan made the decision to ditch the Red Line light rail project in Baltimore, the city’s political and business establishment continue to express outrage.
There’s little indication that anyone beyond the immediate vicinity of Baltimore is paying much attention to the angry outbursts, and certainly not Hogan himself. It’s the kind of political pushback that would lead the blunt, fiscally conservative governor to strengthen his resolve about what he called a boondoggle, dismissing the $3 billion project as wasteful and unnecessary. He sees the advocates playing to their own constituencies.
Grand plans for a Baltimore Metro system have been around in various configurations for a half-century now, and controversy concerning their cost to the state goes back almost as far. That’s why there currently are just two disconnected stretches of rail from Owings Mills to The Johns Hopkins Hospital and from Hunt Valley through downtown to Glen Burnie.
The Red Line would have stretched from Woodlawn to East Baltimore.
At two hearings last month, it was left to Hogan’s polite transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, to take the punches from legislators — most from Baltimore — mystified at Hogan’s dismissal of 10 years of transit planning.
Rahn makes a good punching bag. He is large but quiet, firm but resilient, able to take a blow while continuing to hold his position. Watching the hours he spent on the witness stand, it’s hard to imagine Hogan himself being as calm and patient as Rahn. But that’s what cabinet secretaries are for.
“I started with an agnostic view” of the Red Line, said Rahn, meaning he didn’t know either way. Rahn headed transportation in both Missouri and New Mexico before Hogan brought him to Maryland; neither state managed a mass transit system. Most states have regional transit agencies, often supported by regional taxes.
Hogan needed to make a decision about the Purple Line, but the Red Line was not as pressing. “The governor asked for them both at the same time,” Rahn said.
Rahn was able to cut down expenses for the Purple light rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton, but for the Red Line, “the tunnel was the fatal flaw” — a 3.4-mile underground tube in the middle of the city.
Baltimore’s geography, a boon to its role as a great seaport (also part of Rahn’s domain) causes a huge bottleneck at the Inner Harbor, which is why there are two highway tunnels under the harbor.
“There are notorious examples of tunnel costs [that have] exploded. … The risks of the price of the tunnel are substantial,” Rahn said, pointing to a rise in the estimate from $850 million to $1 billion in recent months.
The decisions in June reinforced the view of Rahn from the day of his appointment, in which Hogan called him “the best highway builder in the country.”
Caring About Baltimore
Having dropped the Red Line and its tunnel, all its money was reallocated to roads and bridges elsewhere, Rahn said.
Why don’t you care about Baltimore? asked Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat.
“We care about Baltimore a lot,” said Rahn. “We want Baltimore to be successful. We believe we do have options available” that provide lower costs and more flexibility for mass transit.
Rahn repeatedly refused to even suggest what those plans might be. Instead, he suggested the legislators and other advocates come to an Aug. 10 meeting to discuss those options.
Reading between the lines, the governor was impatient to build highway projects he felt had been neglected by the O’Malley administration. Building the Red Line would cause further delay, sucking at least $800 million away.
Critics of the Red Line decision say those highway projects have been designed to reward counties that favored Hogan. However, that makes the minimal spending on Baltimore County even more puzzling, since he garnered 59% of the vote there.
No New Projects in Howard
There were no new projects added in Howard County, which also voted for Hogan. There will be a new, $75 million interchange at Routes 175 and 295 (the Baltimore-Washington Parkway) just over the line in Anne Arundel County, and $25 million will be spent on adding a lane to reduce the bottleneck on Route 50 at the Severn River Bridge in Annapolis.
The State Highway Administration has been spending a lot, eventually $35 million, to add a third lane to Route 29 in Columbia. It has already spent almost $20 million improving access to Route 32 north of Clarksville and another $21 million on the Route 40 bridge over the Patapsco, all projects that have been underway for years.
Columbia, from its inception in the 1960s, has always longed for a rail connection to both Washington and Baltimore. Most recently, there was a serious proposal for light rail spur from BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to Columbia in 2003, but nothing came of it. Building rapid rail lines where no railroad right-of-ways already exist is a huge expense.
The current six-year consolidated transportation plan does include $5 million to design and evaluate construction of a bus rapid transit lane on Route 29 from Columbia to Silver Spring. Such steps are just the beginning of a long process, much like the long, slow process that went into the Red and Purple lines. There is no guarantee of funding at the end.
The state already provides grants and subsidies that support some of the local bus routes that run within Columbia and to BWI Marshall. The state also runs the MARC rail lines that run to Washington and Baltimore, as well as the commuter bus lines.
Rahn countered the notion that Baltimore was getting nothing. “There’s a lot of money going in annually,” more than $500 million of the Maryland Transit Administration budget, he said. “I believe we have opportunities to greatly improve transit opportunities in Baltimore City. I don’t believe we have to spend $3 billion” to do that.
Bus rapid transit, as already planned on the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County, is about the best Baltimore can hope for. That was the plan being pushed eight years ago, during the Ehrlich administration.
New Taxes Are Key
An irony of the whole discussion is that neither the Red Line construction spending or the highway projects during the next five years would be possible without the gasoline tax hikes passed by the legislature in 2013. The gas tax went up again July 1.
Hogan sought to roll back these increases, but the legislature rejected the proposal.
If Hogan actually got his way on taxes, there would be few new projects for either highways or transit.
Lawmakers Get Higher Score – Environment, Business
Environmentalists and business groups generally give very different ratings of Maryland legislators based on their votes. But in scorecards released by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and Maryland Business for Responsive Government (MBRG), almost all Annapolis lawmakers improved their scores with both groups.
Democrats, as usual, scored much higher on the environment and Republicans scored significantly better on business issues.
“This year, Maryland legislators earned significantly higher scores for their environmental votes than in years past,” said Marcia Verploegen Lewis, chair of Maryland LCV. “We believe this is because of our work in educating legislators over the years about these urgent issues and the bipartisan support for these priorities in Maryland.”
“Generally, the legislature assumed a more moderate stance this year on issues that affect business and jobs in Maryland,” said MBRG President Duane Carey. “We have a long way to go, but we are giving credit to the General Assembly for avoiding tax increases and publicly acknowledging the need to improve our business climate.”
LCV used four votes to rate the legislators related to fracking, climate change and changing the rain tax (stormwater fee) mandate. Senate Democrats earned an average score of 95% (most scored 100%), Senate Republicans averaged 46%, as did House Republicans. House Democrats averaged 99%.
All Howard County Democrats scored 100%; Republican Del. Bob Flanagan got 67%, a high score for Republicans, in general.
Business Group Operates Differently
The business group operates very differently from the LCV, which actively lobbies lawmakers on bills it favors. LCV took great pride that its members made 1,000 phone calls and sent 10,000 e-mails to legislators advocating for, and against, legislation.
MBRG does not lobby or identify legislation it backs, and sometime uses little noticed legislation to make an assessment, such as its opposition to the expansion of punitive damages for drunk driving lawsuits. It opposes high punitive damages, in general.
In that report, based on eight Senate votes and 11 votes in the House, nine senators and 34 delegates, all Republicans, scored 100%, while seven Democratic senators scored below 30%.
Two Anne Arundel County senators, a Democrat and a Republican, got the top lifetime scores for their parties. Five-term Democrat Sen. James Ed DeGrange of Glen Burnie got 68% (60% in 2015). Three-term Republican Sen. Ed Reilly was the top Republican veteran at 98%.