Rahn says no new money for Baltimore transit

Legislators question Hogan's transportation chief about funding decisions.

Gov. Larry Hogan's transportation chief told state lawmakers Tuesday that there's nothing left from the money saved by canceling Baltimore's Red Line for major initiatives to improve transit services in Baltimore.

Under questioning at a hearing in Annapolis, Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn pledged to work with legislators and other Baltimore leaders to improve transit services he conceded were unacceptable, but he said those efforts would have to rely largely on existing resources.

Rahn said the $736 million the state will save over the next six years by canceling the Baltimore light rail line, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars shaved from the Washington area's Purple Line project, are going toward achieving the Republican governor's "vision" for Maryland's transportation future.

"Will there be any money left?" asked Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat.

"The savings from the Purple Line and Red Line have been committed to roads," Rahn said.

However, Rahn rejected suggestions that he and Hogan were insensitive to Baltimore's needs.

"We care about Baltimore. We want Baltimore to be successful," he said.

Rahn's testimony came as Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz asked the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to come up with new proposals to deal with transportation issues in light of the Red Line's demise.

The joint hearing of the Senate Budget & Taxation and House Appropriations committees was the first opportunity lawmakers have had to question the administration about the sweeping shift in transportation priorities Hogan announced June 25. At the same time he pulled the plug on the Red Line light rail project across Baltimore, the governor gave a conditional green light to the $2.4 billion Purple Line and announced $2 billion in spending on highways — about two-thirds of it new.

Hogan's decision on the Red Line came over the objections of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a vocal supporter of the project. As lawmakers gathered for the hearing, an aide to the mayor distributed suggested questions.

Steven D. McCulloch, a transportation analyst with the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, told lawmakers the decision to cancel the Red Line means that any large-scale Baltimore transit project receiving federal assistance has been put back "years, if not decades."

"Essentially we'd be starting back on square one of the process," McCulloch said.

Rahn faced skeptical questioning from Democrats on the committees but held his ground in defending Hogan budget decisions that won praise from General Assembly Republicans.

The transportation chief struck a generally conciliatory tone, pledging to meet with Baltimore leaders Aug. 10 to discuss transit alternatives. But he offered no specific proposals to replace the $3 billion Red Line, which took a dozen years to plan and had the support of City Hall and Baltimore business leaders.

Rahn said he did not want to make any proposals for improving Baltimore area mass transit before receiving input from legislators and other leaders.

"We will not do anything by fiat," Rahn said. He promised a "cost-effective" improvements to the Maryland Transit Administration's services that can be done within the MTA's existing resources.

"We can do this. We can. I don't believe that just spending $3 billion on anything is an answer," Rahn said.

Under questioning by Baltimore lawmakers, Rahn elaborated on his statement last month that the "fatal flaw" of the Red Line project was the $1 billion tunnel proposed to carry the rails under downtown Baltimore, Harbor East and Fells Point.

Rahn emphasized the risks in any tunneling project of encountering unforeseen obstacles once work starts. He pointed to a Seattle project where a giant boring machine broke down underground and had to be extracted in pieces, causing delays and cost overruns.

The transportation chief said it made no sense to build either end of the line as long as there was no good alternative to the tunnel.

"It goes back to this tunnel being a huge unknown in the middle," he said.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said after the hearing that she is skeptical about the August meeting, predicting a session where "they tell us what they think is best for Baltimore."

"It's clear to me there's not going to be any major new funding for the Baltimore metro area," she said.

Hogan and Rahn found defenders in some of the Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Andrew Serafini of Washington County said Baltimore receives plenty of transportation funding from the state.

"There's a lot of money that's going in annually — in excess of half a billion dollars," he said.

Sen. George Edwards of Garrett County praised the administration's decision to fund a $90 million project to improve U.S. 219 in his sparsely populated Western Maryland County – a project that has been criticized by environmentalists.

"It's the road from somewhere through somewhere to somewhere," Edwards said, turning a quote from a critic on its head. He said the project is essential to providing economic opportunities for his constituents so they aren't forced to move out of Western Maryland.

Many of the complaints centered around what Democratic lawmakers saw as a lack of consultation in the Hogan administration's transportation decisions.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. of Montgomery County said the Hogan transportation department's record compares unfavorably to that under previous administrations.

"Now it seems like an Iron Curtain is falling," he said. Rahn denied any decline in the agency's transparency.

Earlier Tuesday, Kamenetz, who chairs the metropolitan council, said he wants the organization's staff to complete a study of regional transit options in the next 90 days. The council is the planning organization for local governments in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Its leaders include Baltimore's mayor, the elected executives of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, and Harford counties and a representative of the Carroll County commissioners.

Kamenetz has been a fierce critic of Hogan's Red Line decision.

"The governor has eliminated funding for the Red Line, but did not provide any alternative solutions to relieve congestion and transportation access issues," he said in an interview. "What was particularly disheartening was he shifted almost all of the money ... to rural counties."

Hogan announced $845 million in major new projects as part of his highway plan, but Baltimore County received only a modest road-widening job worth $5 million. Kamenetz said that if the county had been consulted, it would have asked for money for interchange work at Dolfield Boulevard and I-795.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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