Koch Brothers Loom Over Maryland’s Purple Line Fight

Look whose envoy has been dispatched to undermine Maryland’s Purple Line. Once again, Randal O’Toole of the Koch brothers-funded Cato Institute has been deployed to attack a light rail project in distress.

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Newly appointed Maryland DOT chief Pete Rahn will play a large role in deciding the fate of the Purple Line. At Rahn’s confirmation hearing, lawmakers questioned him about a fishy contract awarded to Koch Industries when he was running New Mexico DOT.

On Monday, the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank, is hosting a debate on whether to construct the light rail project in the DC suburbs, which newly elected Governor Larry Hogan has threatened to kill. The debate will pair Rich Parson, vice chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, with O’Toole, professional rail critic.

O’Toole works for the Cato Institute, founded and funded by the Koch brothers. Cato dispatches O’Toole to political squabbles involving rail transit around the country, from Indianapolis to Honolulu. He’s so rabidly anti-rail that after Hurricane Sandy, he suggested New York City should replace its subway system with a network of underground buses.

Despite dispensing ridiculous advice, O’Toole continues to be treated as a serious thinker by American media outlets. The Washington Business Journal recently printed an O’Toole broadside against the Purple Line, replete with his typical arguments, like light rail is worse for the environment than driving.

Hogan’s appointee to head the state DOT, Pete Rahn, was scheduled to give opening remarks at the MPPI event. But sources tell us that Rahn has since backed out prior to a bruising confirmation hearing with Maryland’s Democratically controlled legislature.

At the hearing, Maryland lawmakers raised questions about a highway project in New Mexico, where Rahn was previously DOT chief. NM-44, a 118-mile, $420 million road-widening that Rahn oversaw in New Mexico — the most expensive highway project in the state’s history at the time — awarded a huge and unusual contract to Koch Industries.

An investigation by the Albuquerque Business Journal [PDF] reported that Koch Industries was the only bidder on the project and approached Rahn directly with the proposal before bids had been requested. Koch Industries was also awarded an unprecedented $62 million contract for a 20-year maintenance warranty.

Former New Mexico Republican State Senator Billy McKibben told the Illinois Business Journal (which reported on the controversy after Rahn was installed as the head of Missouri DOT) that the deal would have bankrupted the state if it wasn’t for a well-timed oil and natural gas boom.

Correction 2:51 p.m. February 26: The original version of this story included the wrong date for the Maryland Public Policy Institute debate. It is March 2. 

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