In Maryland, decisions about transportation construction projects have always required a sometimes unsettling combination of professional planning and political muscle. There is the dry engineering, soliciting of local input and long-term civic planning behind every highway, bridge, public transit project, port improvement, airport runway or redesigned traffic light. And then there is the final choice of a sitting governor and the transportation department he controls over whether any specific proposal gets funded.
Baltimore learned first-hand about the uncertainties of transportation choices last year when Gov. Larry Hogan killed the $2.9 billion Red Line, the light rail project that was two decades in the making, that was a top priority in the state's Consolidated Transportation Program and for which elected leaders from Towson to Washington, D.C. had pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in support. It was a painful, costly and wasteful move given the huge sum already spent on planning the east-west line, but it was also well within a sitting governor's authority.
Now Democrats in Annapolis want to force Governor Hogan to disclose why certain projects get funded and why others do not. Their inclination is understandable given that, as the General Assembly's top leaders recently observed, the Republican governor seems undisposed to take their guidance on such matters. But whether the initiatives they've proposed will have much impact — or will simply add on another layer of planning to an already-complex planning process — is another matter.
What Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch endorsed this week wouldn't tilt the balance of power. It would simply require that future transportation projects be objectively "scored" based on their benefits. An administration that elevated a lower rated project above a higher rated one would then have to formally explain why. It would not prohibit a governor from making this choice, so it wouldn't have potentially spared the Red Line. It would have only required that Mr. Hogan or his transportation officials blather on about why, for instance, spending millions to widen a little-traveled state highway in Western Maryland was regarded as a more pressing concern than helping a damaged city get back on its feet. Which, of course, he has been asked to do by lawmakers, transportation advocates and the press many, many times.
That makes the legislation, in the parlance of the State House, a bit of a "nothing-burger." But making it a "something-burger" would be worse. Should lawmakers make the rating system binding, Maryland's transportation future would be on a rocky road, indeed. The ability of a governor to direct funding to preferred transportation projects — and yes, often to reward his allies — is an unfortunate necessity. How else, for instance, could an administration ever convince legislators to increase transportation funding without first pointing to projects in a lawmaker's home district that would be in the queue? It is the grease that lubricates the squeaky political wheel.
Legislators have also proposed measures to force the Maryland Transportation Administration to set aside money to replace the two-lane Harry W. Nice Bridge on U.S. 301 in Southern Maryland and create a new advisory board to oversee the Mass Transit Administration, particularly its long-term planning. The MTA bill (which is sponsored by Baltimore Del. Brooke Lierman) has merit, but, as a Hogan spokesman observed, mandating a replacement span for the Nice Bridge regardless of its relative worth would seem at odds with legislation designed to judge transportation initiatives on an objective scoring measure. It's also a precedent that would compromise the independence of the MdTA and should not be pursued further.
Collectively, what these various bills indicate is that Democrats don't trust the sitting governor — and this is hardly the only policy area where that is proving to be the case. Whether that's because he's making bad choices or simply because there's been an absence of communication (backroom or otherwise) between the executive and legislative branches is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder. We agree that Mr. Hogan has already made some regrettable transportation decisions, most notably the rejection of the Red Line and the lowering of tolls (which has potentially compromised funding for the Nice bridge and other future projects). But we are unpersuaded that the Maryland General Assembly's proposal would do much more than make a few tweaks — and add a new level of bureaucracy — to a process that, by necessity, is the governor's to command.
As Democrats like to point out (albeit in a different context), elections have consequences. Short of going back in time and trying a little harder to get Anthony Brown elected, all they can do now is call attention to bad transportation choices and conduct hearings to explore what should be done about them. What likely adds to their frustration is that it was a Democratic coalition led by Mr. Hogan's predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, that pushed through the gas tax increase that is making Mr. Hogan's transportation funding spree possible. Thus, the governor gets to eat his cake and complain about the folks who paid (or at least billed their constituents) for it, too.