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Who knew Hogan, Rutherford were such transit geeks?

Columnnist Dan Rodricks
Columnnist Dan Rodricks (Baltimore Sun)

It takes something — gall, maybe, but certainly a lack of humility — for a man who has no expertise in public transportation or urban planning to tell those who do that they've got it all wrong. That's what Maryland has in both Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.

One killed the Red Line light rail project outright. The other thinks a rapid-bus system is what Baltimore needs instead.

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Who knew that Rutherford, whose last government job was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was a public-transit geek?

He's not, of course. Nor is Hogan; the governor's background is in real estate. But that hasn't stopped him from making a decision with long-term consequences for public transit in the Baltimore region.

All sorts of professionals worked on the Red Line's thorny issues for more than a decade — smart people with advanced degrees in planning and architecture, engineering and the environment; civic-minded and green-minded people, some of whom actually live in Baltimore and want to see public transportation here grow and thrive. Millions already have been spent on planning the Red Line. The state stood to gain hundreds of millions more in federal funds for the $3 billion project, which would have put thousands of people to work and generated new development along its 14-mile path.

But Hogan, a suburban businessman who hasn't used public transportation since shortly after college, killed the Red Line last month, dissing Baltimore at one of the worst times in the city's history.

After feigning interest in having the project evaluated by his transportation secretary, Hogan declared the project "too expensive" and "a boondoggle," pure poetry to the despise-government, despise-Baltimore, despise-it-even-more-since-the-riot crowd.

In fact, declaring it a waste is the easiest thing to say about any high-profile project (except sports arenas) the government takes on. It's the cheap rhetoric of right-wing talk radio, not what you'd expect of a governor who's thoughtful and serious about his duties.

Hogan's political base is suburban and rural; most of his followers probably never use a bus or light rail train, so the governor from Anne Arundel County saw little to gain from backing the Red Line. It takes a person with a grand vision — government for the common good — to see that such an undertaking serves a purpose greater than just placating his base, especially when another constituency urgently needs help.

But Hogan offered nothing in the Red Line's place for Baltimore, a city he claimed to love, then handed out millions of dollars to suburban and rural counties for road projects. That official action, on its face, is fraught with favoritism — millions of dollars for suburban populations that supported his election and nothing for the beleaguered city that didn't — and begs for further scrutiny.

In fact, two organizations that support the Red Line, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association of Baltimore and 1000 Friends of Maryland, have asked the Hogan administration to release records relating to Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn's evaluation. They doubt there was much of one.

"Given that as late as May 20 Secretary Rahn stated the Red Line review had not begun, we do not see how any reasonable analysis could have been done before the announcement to kill the project in June," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, president of 1000 Friends. "This decision was not based on facts."

Of course it wasn't. It was based on 20th-century thinking about transportation — cars and trucks over mass transit, roads over rail — and a punitive attitude toward the city.

It's good these groups are questioning Hogan's decision. But even if they prove the Red Line evaluation was a farce, it's hard to imagine him reversing it.

Rutherford weighed in on the subject last week, telling the Baltimore Business Journal that a rapid-bus system, not light rail, was what Baltimore needed.

"I think rapid bus is the way to go — at least pilot the idea," he said. "You can always change bus routes. You can't change rail routes."

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Yeah, well … the lieutenant governor seems to be a bit confused. He seems to think rapid buses are just buses that go faster than the rest — like the Maryland Transit Administration's express buses that make fewer stops on certain routes.

That's not the case at all. Rapid-bus systems, which can be found in places like Quito, Ecuador, and Johannesburg, South Africa, include high-capacity buses and bus stations with platforms. Like light rail, they require ticketing before a passenger boards a bus. And the routes are not flexible, as Rutherford suggests. In order to be rapid, the buses must run on designated lanes separated from other traffic, and that would be no small endeavor on the streets of congested Baltimore.

The lieutenant governor might not be aware that a rapid-bus system was considered, studied and rejected by Red Line planners and transit officials years ago.

But hey, what did they know?

Dan Rodricks' column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He also hosts "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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