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Don’t let Purple Line kill jobs in Baltimore. Again. | COMMENTARY

The Gunde Maersk, one of the largest ships to ever visit Baltimore with a capacity to handle 11,000 twenty-foot equivalent containers, is docked at Seagirt Marine Terminal in 2018. File.
The Gunde Maersk, one of the largest ships to ever visit Baltimore with a capacity to handle 11,000 twenty-foot equivalent containers, is docked at Seagirt Marine Terminal in 2018. File. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

William P. Doyle, the former federal maritime commissioner recently hired to take over management of the Port of Baltimore and Maryland’s other shipping facilities, probably does not need an extra navigator, but we are inclined to offer some direction anyway: Beware the rocky shoals of the D.C. suburbs. When it comes to transportation spending, they have a big appetite, and Gov. Larry Hogan is inclined to feed it. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Montgomery County, in particular, is a traffic-clogged mess, but it’s also home to the state’s largest tax base and tremendous job growth opportunities. Reducing congestion is fine. But taking the money to do so from Baltimore, which faces some distinct economic disadvantages compared to its D.C. cousins, is not. And that, Mr. Doyle, is the crux of the problem.

Even before the new executive director of the Maryland Port Administration officially takes over in late July, he is at serious risk of having the wind knocked out of his sails. Not intentionally but perhaps by default. The potential culprit? The Purple Line. In case nobody has noticed, the D.C. area light rail project, the $2 billion, 16.2-mile east-west light rail line connecting New Carrollton to Bethesda is in something of a crisis. Cost overruns and squabbles involving the various contractors involved in this public-private partnership, chiefly the Maryland Transit Administration and the Purple Line Transit Partners, have raised the possibility of the project being abandoned mid-construction.

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That is a highly unlikely scenario given the stakes involved, but here’s a much more likely one: At some point, the state is going to have to relent and kick in more money to keep the Purple Line on track. And the problem with that is that the Transportation Trust Fund is running on fumes. That’s hardly a surprise given the historic economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that, among other things, has dramatically reduced gasoline consumption which means far less in motor fuel taxes collected at the pump. State transportation officials have already noted that anticipated transportation revenues may be off by hundreds of millions of dollars from previous estimates. It’s a problem compounded by Governor Hogan’s failure to find new money for the TTF, an uncommon choice at this stage of a gubernatorial term. Previous governors including the last Republican one he once served as appointments secretary, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., raised taxes and/or fees to enhance transportation infrastructure.

So where might the state find the money? The danger is that it will push back projects that have not yet begun construction, and — bingo — the Howard Street Tunnel fits that bill. And it’s not as if the Hogan administration is especially wedded to Baltimore-based transportation projects. The General Assembly’s support for the tax hike that was supposed to pay for the Purple Line was made possible when Martin O’Malley was governor by a parallel commitment to the $2.9 billion Red Line, Baltimore’s own east-west light rail project. Mr. Hogan subsequently abandoned the Red Line during his first term despite $900 million in federal dollars lined up for it. Thousands of jobs were lost with that one decision.

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Admittedly, there are some differences, too. The governor has publicly supported the Howard Tunnel project which would allow double-stacked trains to travel to and from the Port of Baltimore. And earlier this year, he announced an elaborate funding package to pay for the $466 million project including money from the U.S. Department of Transportation and CSX. Under that formula, Maryland actually kicks in less than half the cost. And the benefits to the port are huge and include nearly 3,000 port-related jobs. But what if, instead of starting construction next year, it was moved ahead a year or two or five? That is the kind of thinking that would be devastating for the port where business has already fallen off during the pandemic.

Perhaps we are just prone to expecting the worst. Or maybe it’s because Mr. Hogan seems keen on raising his national profile and abandoned Purple Line construction sites just beyond D.C.'s borders wouldn’t do much to help that political cause. But it would not hurt for Mr. Doyle, perhaps even before he officially starts on July 22, to pledge his strongest support for the Howard project on its current timetable. Baltimore, with the highest unemployment rate in Central Maryland, needs the economic boost. That’s something the pandemic has only served to reinforce.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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