Two major transportation projects have hit something of a crossroads. First, there was Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John M. Maloney’s Feb. 17 ruling to delay, in ortder to consider a bid protest, what has proven to be Gov. Larry Hogan’s favorite transportation initiative: the widening of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway, and replacement of the American Legion Bridge under a public-private partnership. The second is a potential revival of the Red Line, the east-west light rail project derailed by Mr. Hogan during his first term. Under legislation pending in the Maryland General Assembly, state transportation officials would be required to begin planning for the Woodlawn-to-Johns Hopkins Bayview project anew.
Rarely have such high-cost, high-impact capital projects been simultaneously tossed into the political arena — specifically into the 2022 gubernatorial race.
There is some symmetry to be found in this path. As governor, Mr. Hogan killed the $2.9 billion Red Line in 2015 despite considerable state investment and a $900 million federal commitment. He called it a boondoggle, noted some local opposition and made it clear that since he had campaigned against the project as a candidate for governor, he had been empowered by voters to cancel it despite the loss. Now, his beloved $9 billion “P3″ may find itself in a similar posture. Before it can move any further, the state will have to consider the appeal filed by Capital Express Mobility Partners over the award of an initial $54 million design contract to rival Accelerate Maryland Partners, which essentially put AMP in the driver’s seat for the multi-billion project. The losing bidder is a consortium led by Cintra, a company based in Spain, while the winners feature Australians firms Transurban and Macquarie. Cintra has been represented by former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, a Democratic candidate for governor this year.
The dispute may well be resolved before Mr. Hogan leaves office, but given the project’s various controversies including strong opposition in Montgomery County (including from the majority of its General Assembly delegation), a reduction in scope from the original $11 billion proposal and jaw-dropping toll charges of up to $20 in peak hours, it really ought to be put to referendum, which is exactly what the governor’s race represents. Whether the winning bidder in what is formally known as the “pre-development” contract deliberately underestimated its costs, as the loser claims, is ultimately less important than the lengthy delay and the opportune timing. Just as Mr. Hogan saw his election as a vote on the Red Line, the 2022 election ought to be regarded as the final word on whether Marylanders support or oppose this suspect project.
And to be fair, the Red Line should face a similar judgment. As much as we might support the legislation to mandate planning and engineering for the 14-mile light rail project, House Bill 632 (which carries a cost of $7.3 million over a three-year period), we must acknowledge that the fate of the Red Line would be in the hands of the next governor regardless. Not only because Maryland’s transportation system places much of the decision-making authority in the state’s chief executive, but because the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is a proverbial bare cupboard these days. Should the Red Line be revived, it will not only have to qualify for the traditional federal matching funds but Annapolis will likely have to find new revenue for the TTF, the traditional source being motor vehicle fees and fuel taxes.
Mr. Hogan is probably distressed by this possibility and will presumably make concerted efforts to speed up the I-495/I-270 project’s timetable, but that would be irresponsible, particularly if, after the June 28 primary, at least one of the major candidates to succeed him is opposed to it. Call it the “Hogan Transportation Doctrine,” and let the voters decide whether Maryland should be investing so much in blacktop when the threat of climate change is so significant and the COVID-19 pandemic is so fundamentally changing commuting needs. As for “boondoggles,” Mr. Hogan’s judgment may be suspect. The Purple Line, the Bethesda-to-New Carrollton light rail line that the Hogan administration has supervised is currently on track to open more than four years late and cost $9.3 billion when you throw in operating and maintenance budgets and the $250 million settlement paid to the original contractor. One thing the lame duck governor does not deserve right now is to regard himself as deserving a vote of confidence over his transportation management.
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