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Hogan goes off the tracks

How Baltimore commuters (and taxpayers) just got thrown under the train by Maryland governor

Rarely has a Maryland governor delivered such a direct blow to Baltimore's future — and the region's economy — like the one Larry Hogan has landed. The loss of the Red Line, the $2.9 billion, 14.1-mile east-west light rail line represented not only thousands of jobs but perhaps billions in development opportunities around the 19 planned stations between Woodlawn and Johns Hopkins Bayview, all of which represented a potential lifeline to some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods at a time when such investment was needed most.

That Gov. Hogan on Thursday chose not to similarly strike down the Purple Line in suburban Washington claiming it could be made more cost-effective (by reducing the state's share by a half-billion dollars or so, but demanding more from local taxpayers and the private sector) is no comfort whatsoever — not when Red Line funding from federal, state and local governments was clearly available and ready to go. That Mr. Hogan now intends to cannibalize the Red Line to finance more road and bridge projects "in every county in the state" only adds insult to injury, underscoring the fact that most elected leaders in the Baltimore metropolitan area favored light rail as a top transportation and economic development priority, not whatever future stretch of asphalt or concrete might be provided to whatever parts of the state made the governor's most-favored list.

And please spare us any claim that this represents some kind of cost savings to taxpayers or the result of an inherited shortfall. It is clearly not that. Instead, hundreds of millions spent on planning and designing these projects over the last dozen or so years have been flushed away. So has a lot of public funding — $900 million from the federal government for the Red Line. That is transit money that will now go to some other project elsewhere — perhaps in a community that embraces a cleaner, greener, more energy-efficient and truly inter-connected transportation system.

It would be one thing to deny Baltimore if this was a city with an abundance of transit options. It isn't, it's a place of half-built half-measures. Or perhaps a city so prosperous that it doesn't require public investment? It certainly isn't that either. Or maybe it would make more sense if Baltimore was not still reeling from the aftermath of the Freddie Gray unrest and the growing awareness of the myriad hardships endured in what are this state's most concentrated pockets of poverty: the near-abandoned city neighborhoods where unemployment and drug addiction rates are high but opportunities to overcome these handicaps are tragically rare.

More than once since he took office just five months ago, Governor Hogan has spoken of an affection for Baltimore. Yet now he has turned his back on the preeminent project its leaders, both in government and in business, have been working toward for more than a decade. His unilateral actions (held as a closely-guarded secret until Thursday's announcement) do not represent the behavior of a "partner" or a "friend" but of a politician beholden to rural and politically conservative suburban constituencies that care not a fig for Baltimore and perceive transit projects as, at best, a misuse of transportation dollars that ought to be spent repaving their streets or their bypass or their exit ramp until it looks shiny new. Mr. Hogan even announced that much of the money will go to restoring so-called "Highway Users Revenue," apparently so counties across the state will not have to tax their own residents for local road repair.

What a lost opportunity, one that is certain to define Mr. Hogan's time in the State House. Unless Democratic lawmakers can find some way to overrule this choice or convince the Republican governor to change his mind, the Red Line is dead for at least the next decade and with it goes the city's single best chance to bridge the economic and transportation chasms facing East and West Baltimore. And why? Apparently, because the governor believes it costs too much. That's ironic given that the cost is largely due to a planned downtown tunnel required to make light rail trains run fast enough to attract ridership. What happens when there's no tunnel? You get the existing light rail line, which was less costly but far too pokey, making it, as Mr. Hogan observed, among the least popular light rail lines in the country.

Add to this Governor Hogan's unwise to decision to withhold $11.6 million in education funding from city schools this year (money that can't even be spent on any other purpose much as this year's Red and Purple line funding was similarly restricted by the General Assembly), and it's difficult not to draw a harsh conclusion of a "War on Baltimore" in the making.

Legislators struck a deal when they raised the state gas tax two years ago — the Red and Purple lines were at the heart of that negotiation as was a less-than-welcome increase in Maryland Transit Administration fares. Now, the gas tax is still rising, fares have gone up but the reason state lawmakers were willing to swallow both, a major investment in transit, has been half-derailed (if not more given the hit the Purple Line took as well). In a time of need, Baltimore could scarcely have received a message more loudly or clearly that it has no friend in the Hogan administration. Instead, the entire Baltimore region has suffered a major financial reversal with the derailment of light rail and the estimated $2.1 billion in economic activity that would have come with it.

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