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A Hogan decision to kill Red Line or Purple Line would be highly unusual

Rendering that shows a proposed entrance to the Red Line in Fells Point.
Rendering that shows a proposed entrance to the Red Line in Fells Point. (Baltimore Sun)

A decision by Gov. Larry Hogan to scuttle either the Red Line or the Purple Line, the long-planned light rail projects in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, would be highly unusual because it would involve turning down nearly $2 billion in federal funding.

Hogan, a Republican, stressing the need for investments in state highways, has questioned whether the transit lines are affordable but has not made a decision on either. His predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, strongly backed both projects.

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Having already passed through several key federal approval steps, including environmental reviews, each project has been recommended for $900 million in federal funds through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program.

In that program's 40-year history, only "a few" projects have been canceled at the state level after having progressed so far through the review and funding process, the FTA said. Of the New Starts projects since 1991 that have been proposed by the White House for inclusion in the nation's budget — as the Red and Purple lines have been — more than 90 percent are now operating or under construction, the FTA said.

The rare exceptions include a planned light-rail bridge project in Washington and Oregon that fell apart last year amid disagreements between the states, and a commuter rail project in North Carolina that collapsed amid funding questions in the mid-2000s.

Hogan's decision to review the two transit projects in Maryland has stoked debate, with widely divergent opinions on the governor's move.

"The Red Line and the Purple Line are vital to our state's mobility and prosperity," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, in a statement to The Baltimore Sun about Hogan's reviews. "I cannot imagine any reason to waste the decade of effort and tens of millions of planning dollars already invested in bringing these transportation projects to fruition for the citizens of our state or to forfeit the $900 million in federal funding available for each of these projects."

Ben Rosenberg, a Baltimore resident and Red Line critic, said he believes Hogan is doing "what he ought to do" in reviewing the projects.

"Before you jump off the cliff, it's a good idea to look down and see how far it is and what you can anticipate the outcome is going to be, and I think that's what he's doing," Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg said he has been told repeatedly by Maryland officials, particularly under O'Malley's administration, that any substantial changes to the projects would jeopardize federal funding — which is true if the changes were large enough, for instance, to warrant new federal environmental reviews.

Erin Montgomery, a Hogan spokeswoman, said Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn is "studying both light rail projects closely and will make his recommendations" to the governor.

Henry Kay, the Maryland Transit Administration's executive director for transit development and delivery, said state officials "understand the point of development the projects are at, but before they go forward they do want to assess them and assure themselves that they are good expenditures of state funds."

States generally work for years to get projects to the front of the New Starts funding list, where the Red Line and Purple Line are now. They go to great lengths to make their proposals attractive to federal reviewers, committing substantial state dollars and securing commitments from local partners.

Projects without substantial state and local commitments are not even considered for federal funding.

Maryland has spent nearly $450 million on planning and design for the two projects, and all of the local jurisdictions they would pass through have pledged support.

The proposed 14-mile Red Line would connect Woodlawn, west of the city, to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center on the city's east side. It would pass through several of Baltimore's fastest-growing neighborhoods and connect with existing public transit.

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The light rail project is expected to cost nearly $3 billion and would open in 2022. Baltimore has committed $230 million, while Baltimore County has committed $50 million.

The 16-mile Purple Line, estimated to cost $2.4 billion, would connect New Carrollton in Prince George's County to Bethesda in Montgomery County and connect to Washington's Metro system.

Hogan campaigned in part on his skepticism about the proposed transit lines.

Robert Puentes, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, said Hogan killing the state's plans for either transit line would contrast with the way such projects have proceeded for decades — surviving through successive administrations, regardless of party affiliation. The move would be rare, he said, but not unprecedented.

It would be similar to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's decision in 2010 to terminate the over-budget Hudson River commuter tunnel between his state and Midtown Manhattan, Puentes said. That project, which would have doubled train capacity to New York, had attracted billions of dollars in federal funding. The Republican governor said its ballooning cost asked too much of New Jersey taxpayers.

"The argument he was making is, 'We can't afford this now,'" Puentes said, "completely ignoring the fact that New Jersey's economy is completely tethered to Manhattan."

Putting an end to the Red and the Purple lines would be a "completely shortsighted notion" that disregards the projects' long-term value, Puentes said.

"Transit is going through a bit of a renaissance, and many cities and metropolitan areas are realizing that in order for them to be competitive and to attract business investments and workers, they need these kinds of investments," he said.

The FTA said if Maryland drops plans to build the transit lines, the agency would review the terms of the agreements for at least $61 million in federal funds the state already has spent for planning and design, to determine whether the state would be responsible for paying any of that back.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state is aware of $96.3 million in federal funding, as of Jan. 31, that it has spent on planning and design for the two projects.

Nearly all of that is from "federal formula funding," Henson said, which is money the Maryland Transit Administration is allowed to spend on an array of activities, including planning and engineering.

The state already has $200 million of the recommended $1.8 billion in New Starts funding for the two projects, though its use is restricted until final funding agreements are signed.

Those agreements would come only after the state lined up all of its funding for the projects, including the substantial portions expected to be derived through public-private partnerships.

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