Two years ago, we called out Gov. Larry Hogan for declaring legislation requiring the state to rank the worthiness of its transportation construction projects a “road kill bill” that seriously threatened Maryland’s future. Even before “alternative facts” had entered the public nomenclature, it wasn’t hard to spot a political tall tale. We argued then — and later when a compromise was reached with the General Assembly — that publicly ranking projects meant little to nothing when a governor gets to choose the criteria for ranking and still has final say on what projects are actually funded no matter where they end up on the list.
So what happened next? Well, the rankings were reported this week by The Sun’s Luke Broadwater. And here are the most telling: On a score of 0-500, Governor Hogan’s controversial plan to add so-called “Lexus Lanes” to the Capital Beltway and I-270 in the D.C. suburbs scores a — wait for it — perfect 500. And where did the Red Line, Baltimore $2.9 billion east-west light rail line that Governor Hogan cancelled (and which triggered the so-called road kill bill in the first place)? That score turned out to be a bit lower at 1.45. That’s right, somehow Mr. Hogan’s Department of Transportation ended up seeing widening suburban highways as about 345 times more worthy than upgrading city transit.
It’s not difficult to figure out what happened here. It’s an impressive level of deceit. The governor who warned that a law requiring transportation projects face a more public planning process would “wreak havoc on the entire state transportation system and usurp important authority away from local governments and away from the executive branch of state government” seems to have conjured up a ranking system that perfectly suits his own transportation priorities. Imagine that. What a coincidence. Who could have guessed?
And here’s where we should offer our own apologies. When the original legislation came out several years ago, we labeled it a “nothing burger” because we suspected this would become a mostly bureaucratic exercise since it was all non-binding anyway. We were wrong. It’s actually more like “stone soup” — by itself, it contains nothing substantial, but bit by bit, it’s been transformed into a useful public relations tool to bolster Mr. Hogan’s priorities.
Incidentally, why did I-495 and I-270 widening projects get a perfect score? Apparently, it’s because neither involves tax dollars; they have been proposed as public-private partnerships or P3s. Under such a plan, a private company designs, builds and maintains the added lanes like private tolls roads charging hefty sums to users. On Interstate 66 in northern Virginia, rush hour tolls can climb higher than $40 a trip. Somehow, that hefty charge doesn’t register with the Hogan ranking system. Pennies on the gas tax to finance public bonds? That could land you on the bottom of the list because that involves tax dollars. Tolls? The sky is the limit. Never mind that it all comes from pretty much the same pockets — with the P3 adding the expense of corporate profits and without the cost-savings offered by the lower interest rates on government bonds.
And speaking of planning, the one thing that’s clear about the private highway proposal is that it’s facing substantial opposition, particularly in Montgomery County where skeptics include County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council. And what does Governor Hogan say about that given his concern about not usurping “authority away from local governments?” He’s labeled opponents “anti-congestion-relief activists” who show no sympathy “for the hundreds of thousands of you who are stuck in soul-crushing traffic every day; even more, they offer no real ideas to solve a public health, environmental & safety crisis that is hurting quality of life in the region.”
Finally, we would add that it would still be worthwhile for Maryland to develop a rational ranking system for transportation projects like the one Baltimore Del. Brooke Lierman had in mind when she submitted the original “road kill bill” that now seems to have become a “road shill bill.” Virginia has one. Why can’t its neighbor? All it would require is for transportation officials to develop objective ranking criteria, perhaps in consultation with folks like Delegate Lierman, instead of just looking for ways to boost Governor Hogan’s favored projects. Considering the billions of dollars at stake, such honesty and transparency doesn’t seem like too much to expect.