Baltimore’s Surprise Subway Shutdown: Larry Hogan Passes the Buck

While the Maryland governor prepares for a bonanza of toll road spending, he let the most important transit route in the state fall into dangerously poor condition.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is pushing for private toll roads. Photo:  Ft Meade Public Affairs
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is pushing for private toll roads. Photo: Ft Meade Public Affairs

This week, Baltimore’s MTA ordered an emergency shutdown of the city’s Metro SubwayLink, a 15-mile route that serves about 40,000 trips each weekday and the city’s only subway line.

The metro will remain closed for 30 days for track repairs. Workers were inspecting tracks on Sunday when they discovered a critical but unspecified defect.

With almost no advance warning or planning, the closure blindsided transit riders and led to massive disruption and confusion yesterday, the Baltimore Sun reports.

The replacement service relies on private shuttle buses. Governor Larry Hogan offered $2.2 million in emergency funds to help cover fares. But the MTA hasn’t even had time to install signs telling riders where to go. The situation is upending the lives of riders like Tameka Davis, a 41-year-old nurse interviewed by the Sun, who said she lost 45 minutes to delays.

It’s a story that highlights how Maryland politicians and agency officials have neglected basic transit maintenance on one of the most important routes in the state.

Baltimore's Metro Subway is 15-miles long and carries about 40,000 daily rides. Map: Wikimedia
Baltimore’s Metro SubwayLink carries about 40,000 daily trips. Map: Wikimedia

According to WBAL, repairs were scheduled for this summer. In the meantime, the MTA had dramatically reduced train speeds, slowing service.

Hogan, who’s been governor three-and-a-half years, blamed previous administrations for the poor track conditions.

But David McClure, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 1300, told WBAL that the union had warned state officials about track problems since 2016, and that responsibility falls squarely on Hogan.

“It’s like Baltimore doesn’t exist to this administration,” he told the station.

It’s a critique that squares with the rest of Hogan’s record on Baltimore transit.

One of Hogan’s first acts was to unilaterally withdraw state support for the city’s Red Line rail project, which was shovel ready at the time of his election. Baltimore leaders had spent $230 million and the better part of a decade planning the $2.9 billion project, which would have connected some of the city’s low-income black neighborhoods to job clusters. Meanwhile, Hogan allowed the Purple Line project in Maryland’s DC suburbs to proceed.

A complaint by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund held that Hogan’s decision discriminated against Baltimore’s black neighborhoods. U.S. DOT agreed to evaluate the complaint in the waning days of the Obama administration, but it was snuffed out under Trump.

After killing the Red Line, Hogan offered Baltimore $135 million for bus system upgrades. While helpful, it was no substitute for a much-need light rail link, and advocates characterized it as a “consolation prize.”

Meanwhile, Hogan’s purported fiscal prudence — he claimed the state couldn’t afford the Red Line — has not carried over to highways. His extravagant $9 billion road expansion plan will supposedly be paid for by tolls but exposes Maryland taxpayers to huge amount of risk if the assumptions underpinning the highway projects don’t pan out.

  • TakeFive

    Rant – What is it about Blue states that they have utterly failed to take care of the basics? Putting the blame on Gov Hogan is just one more example of the standard response of passing the buck. It seems like most all of the forever politically blue states have squandered their financial responsibility for covering their basis fundamental needs. Nvm all the pension problems.

    Props to Rahm on his Chicago transit maintenance and refurbishment efforts but the state and city’s GO bond rating is clinging to the lowest rung of investment grade before falling into junk status.

    I may despise the conservative social politics of Arizona but Phoenix as the 12th largest MSA was recently rated 47th (worst) for congestion. There’s something to be said for over three decades (and counting) of healthy dedicated transportation funding. That revenue also funded the first 20-miles of light rail (now 26 mi) with ridership numbers (per mile) up their with Portland. So outside of the Original Six that’s impressive.

    Btw, I’m much more anti-right than anti-left so this is just an observation.

  • SD70MACMAN

    This perspective ignores the urban vs suburban and rural divide, and the later’s distaste for transit and control of state legislatures where transit agencies often get money from. Under the previous Democratic admin in Maryland, they were set to build two new lines one of which disappeared when Hogan came into office. That in action in itself says something as MDOT, a state agency answerable to the legislature and governor, is responsible for transit operations in Baltimore.

    Here in Washington, GOP legislatures have no problem screwing over Seattle’s needs and desires while milking the urban area for money in a similar manner to pay for suburban highway and rural projects.

  • TakeFive

    Eh, couple of things.

    First, I was referencing the need to maintain that which already exists as opposed to new projects.

    Second. state and municipal governance and funding are very different animals. For example, Colorado, at the state legislative level doesn’t want to be in the transit business other than for a designated 10% which they’ve used to build high quality bike trails all over the state and to help ski areas etc with help in analyzing their own transit needs.

    IIRC, WA legislature added $billion a year for nine years to their state’s DOT in 2015. King Co/Seattle et all passed ST3 which is a $54 billion transit package in 2016. I’d conclude that WA is the one state that has found a very nice balance to disparate needs.

    Rural needs can’t be overlooked as that is where everybody’s daily bread starts it daily trip. 🙂

    With respect to suburban/city needs that is where Phoenix metro has excelled.

  • Jared R

    In New York, for example, the State controls the transit agency for NYC. The politics are clear. Suburban and rural leaders are pro-auto/anti-rail. They fund road expansions projects at the expense of rail maintenance.

  • swtmix

    @disqus_NDPzReCOpT:disqus

    Except, of course, in Maryland all transit is run by and is the responsibility of the MTA, which is a State agency. Baltimore City and the counties have very little say in how the MTA is run and no say in where or how the money is spent. Therefore any problems with the Baltimore Metro is the State’s responsibility, and ultimately Governor Hogan. I still remember when Gov. Hogan’s office issued a press release soon after he took office that included a map of Maryland that left out the City of Baltimore; just a blank area where the city is.

  • bolwerk

    Several answers…

    1) It’s because they don’t regard them as basics. They don’t value transit, so they don’t want to spend money on it. Neither do most red states, with the caveat that many red states probably don’t even have many services blue states have. Blue state or not, Larry Hogan is as much of a troglodyte as Chris Christie or Sam Brownback. And the Democrats who came before him were as much empty suits as, say, Bill de Blasio or Cory Booker.

    2) If you want to put it an ideological spin on it, it’s neoliberal managerial ideology clashing with reality. It’s common managerial practice nowadays to focus on very short-term performance and let the future worry about the future’s short-term performance. You see this in action with the so-called “retail apocalypse” in the private sector, where Gordan Gekko-style capitalists borrow heavily to put performing retailers into financial straits by borrowing heavily for whatever dubious reason and then find ways to pay themselves from the assets pot. In the government sector, it mostly comes in the form of “saving” by not bothering to fix problems or borrowing to cover day-to-day operations. Much as a big deal is made about “blue vs. red,” there’s pretty broad bipartisan consensus on economics and public finance: it’s the short term that matters, and private is better than public.

    3) In light of that, it’s also new infrastructure vs. old infrastructure. Baltimore’s rail transit is decades old, while newer infrastructure in the west hasn’t yet had as much chance to be neglected. It’s relatively easy to get people to back a new project, and hard to get them to pay for what they already have – even if it’s cheaper to maintain than to replace or extend. It’s even harder for transit assets which, however cheaper they are than forcing more people onto packed roads, are still used by a minority of people. Rail is the type of thing where a huge upfront capital expense is needed, and then maintenance is relatively cheap between cycles of intensive renewal – figure a rail car has an expected lifespan of 40 years or so before you pretty much have to replace it, so if you bought all your cars in 1978 you better be preparing financially to replace them around 2018 (largely because of point #2: nobody really prepares).

    Expect red states to start seeing more of these problems over the next few decades as their infrastructure ages.

  • bolwerk

    #2 is very international, too. It might be most pronounced in the United States and UK, but there isn’t a single major economy where those trends don’t exist.

  • TakeFive

    Excellent response; all good points.

    #3 is certainly a factor but at least in theory gov’t agencies should be more disciplined. Switching infrastructure to W&S both AZ and CO (states I can speak to) are spending a lot due to both growth and the need to replace parts of the system that are up to 100 years old. The need of securing and managing supply as well as ongoing maintenance plus major refurbishment and upgrades makes it a challenge. But both states appear to be dealing with it. So it can be done.

    My understanding is that rail cars should have a significant refurbishment after about 17 years. Hah, a quick google check and Maryland’s MTA started their’s after 15 years so they have that right.

  • bolwerk

    I figure the answer is probably that most large urban local governments handle some things well and some things poorly.
    If you mean water and sewer, I wouldn’t regard those as big problems in the northeast, though I’m aware of pockets of problems. You wouldn’t expect it from how the transit system is handled, but NYC probably has one of the best urban water supplies on Earth. With regard to transportation and land use, there are few places in the urban northeast that get anything right. Los Angeles of all places is trying to grow out of car dependency, and New York is still trying to grow into it.

    It’s possible that since the 1980s, living memory of environmental health problems receded from conscience, which has sometimes helped politicians be much more cavalier about health outcomes. The city manager who wrecked Flint was trying to save some paltry sum of money every day (under $50?) and decided to give the entire city lead poisoning to do it. Mike Pence didn’t see an issue with cutting HIV screening and causing a minor epidemic in rural Indiana. These idiots see themselves as technocrats too.

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