Dashing Baltimore's hopes for a long-anticipated east-west light rail line to improve its transit network, Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday that he will not build the $2.9 billion Red Line across the city.
"We are not opposed to public transportation. We are opposed to wasteful boondoggles," the governor said. "The Red Line as currently proposed is not the best way to bring jobs and opportunity to the city."
But Hogan, making his first public appearance since announcing Monday that he has cancer, offered mass-transit advocates a limited victory by giving conditional approval to construction of a slimmed-down version of the Purple Line light rail project in the Washington suburbs. He said the state would reduce its up-front share of construction costs from almost $700 million to $168 million, while requiring Prince George's and Montgomery counties to shoulder more of the burden.
During his campaign last year, Hogan had said the state could not afford either rail project. After he took office, however, he ordered Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn to evaluate both and make a recommendation on whether to proceed.
By eliminating the expense of the Red Line and scaling back the state's share of the Purple Line, Hogan freed up hundred of millions of dollars he plans to use to undertake a significant shift in the state's transportation priorities from public transit to road projects.
The governor announced $2 billion in highway spending, $1.35 billion of it new, as part of a long-range plan to give the state road system 57 percent of the transportation pie rather than the 45 percent share it received under Gov. Martin O'Malley. Hogan said he was keeping the promise he made to Maryland voters to make the state's roads his No. 1 priority.
By deciding not to go ahead with the Red Line, the Republican governor is dealing a major blow to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had hoped construction of the light rail project would bring a windfall of jobs and economic development.
Rawlings-Blake said she was "disheartened' by Hogan's decision.
"Although the governor has promised to support economic growth in Baltimore, he canceled a project that would have expanded economic development, created thousands of jobs, increased access to thousands more, and offered residents better health care, child care and educational opportunities," she said.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz called on Hogan to propose an alternative to the Red Line, noting the county is home to the headquarters of Social Security and Medicare offices with more than 16,000 employees. Kamenetz, a Democrat, said many of them would have used the Red Line to commute.
"Without presenting viable alternatives, the state not only forfeits available federal funding, it leaves Baltimore County, Baltimore City and the region stuck in traffic," he said.
Baltimore has long been handicapped by a transit system that many residents regard as second-rate — with a subway system consisting of a single line and a north-south light rail line that slows to a crawl as it makes its way through downtown on Howard Street.
As planned, the 14-mile Red Line was to go from Woodlawn in the west to Bayview in the east. The governor's decision comes after years of environmental studies and public meetings and tens of millions of dollars in state spending on design and engineering.
While a future governor could decide to revive the Red Line, Maryland would no longer have the near-assurance of federal funding it has now. In addition, the cost of building the same project would likely be hundreds of millions more because of inflation.
Rahn said Thursday the "fatal flaw" of the Red Line project was the plan for a $1 billion tunnel under downtown, Harbor East and Fells Point. He said the administration would try to provide transportation assistance to Baltimore in others ways, but he offered no specifics.
Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said he was "very frustrated" by the decision to cancel a transit project the business group has supported since its inception in 2002. He said it would set back the effort to improve rail transportation by at least a decade.
"This is a project that has gone through years and years of examination at the state level and by transportation experts," he said. Fry noted that the Red Line was one of only six transportation projects nationwide — the Purple Line is another — that had gone through the U.S. government's rigorous process to qualify for federal aid. The projects were approved to receive $900 million each.
Fry rejected Rahn's criticism of the roughly 4.2 miles of tunnels involved in the project. Fry said there was no alternative because surface rail would require a loss of traffic lanes, which would cause massive congestion downtown.
State Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said she was blindsided by the action.
"To say I'm disappointed by the loss of the Red Line would be an understatement," said McIntosh, who brokered a deal with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a decade ago to get the Red Line planning started.
Hogan's decision left some city residents upset but others elated.
"I am appalled to hear they've canceled the Red Line after all the money that's been spent," said Joy Ross, president of the Harlem Park-West community association.
Canton resident Ben Foote, 34, said he, too, was disappointed. Foote said Baltimore lags woefully behind other cities in mass transit.
"Good rail is a game changer," he said. "The light rail now is north-south, so it would have been nice to have something even better going east-west."
But Sean P. Flanagan, president of the Canton Community Association, praised Hogan's decision. He said the Red Line would harm Canton through construction of a street-level rail line through the heart of the neighborhood. "We support mass transit, but we could not support the Red Line as proposed," Flanagan said.
While Hogan's decision dismayed Baltimore leaders, advocates for the Purple Line were relieved he hadn't killed their project outright.
"After 25 years, it's a really great feeling," said Ben Ross, a transit advocate who's been agitating for construction of the Purple Line for about that long.
Hogan put conditions on his approval, including that Prince George's and Montgomery counties put in an unspecified larger share of funds and that the federal government come through with the $900 million it had tentatively approved.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett expressed optimism, and said he looks forward to "honest negotiations" with the state over the county's share of costs. "I feel confident we can achieve success here," he said.
Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III released a more cautious statement thanking the governor and promising to review his proposal.
Hogan's shift of money to highways opened the door for him to announce dozens of projects around the state — widening roads, shoring up bridges, improving intersections and adding lanes to Route 404 on the Eastern Shore, the gateway to the Delaware beaches and northern Ocean City for many Marylanders.
State Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey, a Republican from the Upper Shore, said he was "ecstatic" about the Route 404 decision and the governor's transportation approach.
"This governor committed to bringing change to Maryland and he has delivered every day since," Hershey said.
In announcing the transportation decisions, Hogan's Twitter account sent out a message that had critics fuming: "Our transportation plan will provide infrastructure improvements to every single county in Maryland!" The map did not include Baltimore, and made it look as if the city was underwater as part of the Chesapeake Bay.
"Every other county shows investments being made, and Baltimore is literally and figuratively a gaping hole," said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.
Hogan's staff later deleted the image and said it was not representative of the governor's support of the city.
Matt Clark, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor's increased allocations of highway user revenue funds means Baltimore will receive $392 million more for its roads over the next six years than the O'Malley administration had proposed.
"The map should have showed all of the state's support for Baltimore City's roads," Clark said.
Hogan defended his administration's treatment of Baltimore, noting that he recently sent millions to the city to help it recover from recent rioting.