Red Line math

Wondering what the deal is with the Hogan administration's dispute about Red Line savings? Read on.

There's no crying in baseball, and there's no politics in math. At least there wasn't until the Hogan administration this week accused the non-partisan Department of Legislative Services of "concocting totally bogus numbers only intended to drive a known political agenda" at the behest of House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Here's what's actually going on:

On June 25, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he was dedicating nearly $2 billion for highways and bridges while canceling the long-planned $2.9 billion Red Line light rail in Baltimore and slashing the state's contribution to the Purple Line light rail in the Washington suburbs. On Monday of this week, Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn met with Baltimore-area lawmakers and told them the state did not plan any new major transportation projects for the city to replace the Red Line, though it would receive a $400 million greater infusion of Highway Users Revenue during the next six years than had been planned under the O'Malley administration.

After the meeting, Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, asked DLS to crunch the numbers and figure out whether any money saved through the Red Line cancellation was left over. He said he did so on his own initiative after leaving the Rahn meeting with questions. The agency's analysts looked over the available information and performed the following calculations.

In June, Mr. Hogan advertised $1.35 billion in funding for new projects. He specifically delineated $845 million for major new road projects. (None were in Baltimore City. The Baltimore region, which comprises 45 percent of the state's population, got 12 percent of the new project funds; the Eastern Shore, with 8 percent of the state's population, got 27 percent of the new funds.) The governor also listed $195 million in new bridge repair and reconstruction projects. Adding those together produces a total of $1.04 billion in specifically enumerated new transportation spending, not $1.35 billion.

Next, DLS analysts looked at the savings from canceling the Red Line and dropping the state's projected Purple Line contribution from about $700 million to $168 million. They initially came up with a figure of $1.379 billion, or a difference of $339 million. However, that figure for savings from the Red Lines included local funding for that project, and after a bit of clarification from the Department of Transportation, DLS revised the savings down to $1.263 billion, which leaves a difference of $223 million.

Is there really $223 million floating around that could be dedicated to new projects in Baltimore? The Department of Transportation insists not. They say all the money has been allocated. The governor's press release announcing his transportation funding package listed the $845 million in major road projects and referred at one point to $500 million in new funding "to fix bridges and improve roads." Theoretically, that means he's got some $305 million in road improvements in mind, he just didn't specify what they are.

All of this should really have been a simple matter to clear up, and by Wednesday afternoon, the administration had more or less done so. A spokeswoman for MDOT sent an email to various state officials providing some more clues as to what's going on — for example, it turns out the $1.35 billion in new projects includes $90 million in federal funds, making the new state funding equal the savings from the Red and Purple lines. And that $195 million for bridges includes one old, $45 million project. The explanation, however, appears to have created some semantic confusion. The administration's materials refer in various places to "preserved projects" and in other places to "preservation projects." DLS wasn't including preserved projects in its calculations on the grounds that they had already been in the budget. Fair enough. But some of what the administration is counting are "preservation projects," by which it means things like road repaving. In most cases, that is new spending that hadn't previously been on the books, though unlike the major projects, those repairs are mostly not enumerated. Nonetheless, if the administration is dedicating a total of $500 million in new funds over the next six years to fixing bridges and roads, its numbers add up.

Still, there was no reason for the Hogan administration to use the occasion to impugn an agency that has for decades been treated by Democrats and Republicans alike as an honest broker in researching the fiscal and policy implications of legislation. This week, a legislator asked DLS a question, as lawmakers from both parties routinely do. Analysts answered it to the best of their ability based on the information they had. The proper response from the Hogan administration would simply to have been to explain what the calculations missed. Instead, it made wild accusations of an orchestrated smear campaign based, evidently, on nothing more than a political hunch. If the Hogan administration is going to accuse people of purposely attempting to "muddy the waters," as a spokesman accused DLS of doing Wednesday, it should look in the mirror.

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