There was much happiness in Greater Washington, D.C., this week as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and his Democratic counterpart in Virginia announced plans to rebuild and widen the American Legion Bridge, the aging and traffic-clogged Potomac River crossing on the west side of the Capital Beltway. The governors anticipate construction to begin as early as 2022. They see four gleaming new “Lexus” toll lanes in addition to eight lanes for the folks who don’t want to pay $40 in peak traffic or whatever the ultimate cost. And, of course, this is on top of gubernatorial plans to greatly expand nearby Interstate 270 as well as the beltway in a similar fashion with public-private partnerships and high-end tolls. Altogether, billions upon billions of highway and bridge spending. That extreme political generosity raises an important question:
Where’s the quid pro quo?
You heard us. We want ours. The Baltimore region isn’t getting anything like this record level of investment in transportation. It isn’t even getting the kind of transit spending the pro-highway Hogan administration has approved for the D.C. area with the $5.6 billion Purple Line, the 16-mile Bethesda-to-New-Carrollton light rail system currently under construction. Meanwhile, Baltimore area business leaders are begging for transit table scraps, bemoaning a 10% drop in MTA capital funding and pleading for the resources to get their workers to jobs. Their complaint? It’s not just that Charm City isn’t getting any transit expansion, it isn’t even getting enough money for system preservation. Hope for transit expansion died when the governor killed the Red Line, the 14-mile east-west light rail line Mr. Hogan found too costly at $2.9 billion or roughly half the Purple Line. Now, they’d just like to see the subway system operate without month-long shutdowns.
We wouldn’t normally begrudge Montgomery County getting the resources it needs to maintain its robust economy while side-stepping the gas tax increase Mr. Hogan obviously abhors. They live in Maryland, too, and should continue to prosper. But even the folks in Rockville have expressed skepticism about this humongous P3 investment in highways. How does accommodating more vehicles on the road fit the state’s ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Just how willing should Maryland be to accept a haves versus have-nots approach to transportation with those costly Lexus lanes? The Hogan administration’s desire to build in the D.C. region without much thought seems inversely proportionate to its willingness to stiff Baltimore’s assorted needs (transportation included) without much thought.
So it’s time to play our State House card. Last month, the Democrats who control Maryland’s Senate selected Baltimore’s Bill Ferguson to be their next president. That’s on top of the decision last spring to elect Baltimore County’s Adrienne A. Jones as speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. The Baltimore region now holds two major levers of power in Annapolis. It’s time they asserted themselves and made it clear to the occupant of the second floor of the State House that Baltimore matters, too. Let’s put a hold on transportation mega-projects in the D.C. corridor like the American Legion Bridge — at least until Charm City gets the state funding it deserves.
It won’t be easy, of course. The Hogan administration has studiously avoided multiple opportunities to boost Baltimore’s economy such as the $1.5 billion redevelopment of State Center or devising a sound alternative for the Red Line. At this point, perhaps the best that might be available would be to get the governor to embrace the major increase in public educating spending recommended by the Kirwan Commission. Mr. Hogan’s unceasing attacks on education reform strike at the heart of what Baltimore needs most — improved K-12 schools with the resources needed to lift up a generation born into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. If it takes a D.C. area bridge to get the governor’s signature on a Kirwan funding plan, then so be it.
[ Larry Hogan in 2015: "Baltimore is the economic engine of Maryland" ]
Again, that’s not to rain on anybody’s parade down in D.C. But what we’re looking for is a little balance. Just as Maryland benefits from a prosperous Montgomery County so does it benefit from a revived Baltimore where those billions of public spending would go a long way to creating much-needed economics opportunities. And don’t take our word for it. In 2014, then-Governor-elect Hogan said Baltimore should be Maryland’s “primary” economic engine and “that’s what we’re going to try to fix.” In case he hasn’t noticed, it still needs fixing, as urgently as it did five years ago.