Seeing shovel-ready transit projects destroyed by petty politics has been all too common the last few years (see: Scott Walker and Wisconsin high-speed rail, or Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel). Even so, this one’s a doozy.
Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan has the power to halt two major urban transit projects that have the planning and funding all lined up and and are all but ready to go: suburban DC’s 16-mile Purple Line as well as Baltimore’s 14-mile Red Line. More than a decade of planning has gone into each of these transit lines, and each has been awarded a competitive federal New Starts grant for $900 million [PDF], accounting for about a third of the total $5.5 billion combined cost.
Early in his gubernatorial campaign, Hogan promised to kill the projects, saying the money would be better spent on roads and that the western, eastern, and southern parts of the state deserved more attention. But closer to the election he moderated his views, saying the lines were “worth considering.”
Since winning the race, he has mostly kept mum about his intentions. When asked recently about the plans, he demurred, according to the Washington Post.
“They should just keep on guessing, because I’m going to be governor January 21, and we will start talking about policy then,” he said.
Although Hogan won’t take office for a few weeks yet, his indecision is already affecting construction timetables. Bids were due this month for the Purple Line project, but were delayed until March, after the swearing-in.
Maryland spent more than $170 million planning and purchasing right-of-way for the Purple Line and another $230+ million on planning for the Red Line. That work will go to waste if the projects are killed. Plus, because the Red Line has already gone out to bid, the state would be responsible for another $8 million in payments to the engineering firms that have prepared detailed, long-term plans to build the line.
Of the most concern to transit advocates is all the federal funding that would likely be lost if the state were to abandon or dramatically alter the plans at this late stage. In addition to the New Starts grant, the Purple Line has received $900 million in federally backed loans. None of the federal money could be used for other projects in the state.
Business groups in both the DC area and Baltimore strongly support the projects and have been urging the governor to continue with the plan.
Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect who served as a consultant and planner on the Red Line, said dirt could start flying this year in Baltimore. The $2.9 billion Red Line was expected to not just attract new passengers, but greatly expand the usefulness of the city’s existing two rail lines by creating a more extensive network. It was also expected to be a boon for struggling west Baltimore, where intensive community planning processes sought to get the most out of the stations for local neighborhoods.
“The hope is that with the Red Line [Baltimore’s rail transit] would start to become a real system and we’d have a quantum leap in connectivity,” Philipsen told Streetsblog.
Meanwhile, a gas tax hike approved by lawmakers has been netting the state’s Transportation Trust Fund an additional $600 million annually, more than enough to pay for the projects, said Philipsen. He doesn’t think the governor’s claims about the state lacking the funding to proceed hold up.
It’s possible Hogan is just posturing to put himself in a good position for budget negotiations and he’ll back down on these two projects, says David Moon, a former leader of the Purple Line Now advocacy group and currently a state delegate-elect, representing portions of suburban Maryland along the proposed line. “That’s what I’m hoping,” he told Streetsblog.
On the other hand, Hogan might decide to table both projects. There haven’t been many clues.
In one remark, Hogan asserted that the Purple Line and the Red Line are “night and day,” but Moon said it isn’t at all clear which one he might be more supportive of. So it’s possible he could elect to kill one of the projects but not the other.
In a more optimistic scenario, over the next few years, state leaders may have to jockey over how big a portion the state contributes to the projects. That’s okay, says Moon, as long as federal grants aren’t jeopardized.
Even if Hogan were to call for the termination of both projects, Moon says he doesn’t think that would be the end of it.
“I think that means we’re in for a very acrimonious legislative session,” he said.
Nixing one or both the projects could have long-term repercussions for the state’s economy — which is driven in large part by the economies of the DC and Baltimore regions. And these two regions hold a great deal of seats in the legislature.
David Alpert wrote at Greater Greater Washington that without major transit investments, Maryland’s segment of the DC region seems to be falling behind Virginia’s, which recently saw the opening of the Silver Line. On local blog Maryland Juice, former county planning chair Gus Bauman wrote last summer that the expansion of transit in Northern Virginia represents “a tipping point” that threatens Montgomery County’s economic future if it fails to keep up.