Maryland's new transportation chief promised senators Wednesday that he will keep an open mind as he considers whether the state should go ahead with two major light rail projects, including Baltimore's Red Line.
Pete Rahn, Gov. Larry Hogan's nominee for transportation secretary, said he will base his recommendation to the governor on a thorough review of the pros and cons of moving forward with that project and the Washington area's Purple Line. He said he won't be guided by Hogan's campaign promises to block construction.
"The governor has asked me to keep an open mind and make a recommendation to him," Rahn said. He added that he hopes to give Hogan his opinion before the General Assembly's 90-day session ends in April but could not be sure his review will be finished by then.
Rahn, who is new to Maryland, told lawmakers he couldn't say much about the merits of the projects because he doesn't know much about them.
The Red Line is a $2.9 billion project that would extend a 14-mile rail line between Woodlawn in Baltimore County and Bayview in East Baltimore. The Purple Line is a 16-mile project that would run from New Carrollton in Prince George's County to Bethesda in Montgomery County.
During last year's election campaign, Hogan said the state could not afford to build the two transit projects, which had the strong support of then-Gov. Martin O'Malley. Hogan said he wanted to shift state spending to emphasize highway construction.
Rahn, who formerly headed state transportation agencies in New Mexico and Missouri, appeared before two legislative committees Wednesday as he introduced himself to lawmakers after one week on the job. He attempted to dispel the notion that Hogan's description of him as "the best highway builder in the country" meant he didn't care about other forms of transportation.
"The idea that I'm foreign to all forms of transit would not be an accurate assessment," Rahn told the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee. He said he sees a need for a balanced transportation system and recognizes that transit is the only way for many people to get to their jobs.
"It's not a lifestyle choice. It's a necessity for many people," he said.
Rahn, who is acting secretary pending Senate confirmation, assured senators that he will weigh the economic benefits of building the lines against the hefty price tag.
"It always comes down to costs and how you can pay for it," he said.
Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said it was "very encouraging" that Rahn has pledged to examine the Red Line project without prejudice.
"From the Baltimore perspective, this is perhaps the most significant economic growth opportunity the city has to grow jobs and gain access to job opportunities," Fry said. He added that he hopes to meet with Rahn soon.
"I'm confident there is a very strong case to be made for the Red Line," Fry said.
Rahn and Henry Kay, the Maryland Transit Administration's longtime director of the projects, briefed senators on their status.
Kay said the federal government has agreed to pick up $900 million of the cost of each project. The rest would come from a combination of state transportation funds, contributions from local jurisdictions and contributions by a possible private partner.
The state is soliciting bids on a public-private partnership for the Purple Line, and in April the MTA plans to ask the Board of Public Works for permission to do the same for the Red Line. If Hogan does not decide to delay or cancel the projects, the agency says both could begin construction in 2016.
The state has spent a combined $450 million on the two projects, which are in the engineering phase, Kay said. In his spending plan released last week, Hogan included more than $400 million to continue work on both projects, but would not have to spend the money if he decides to cancel a project.
The MTA's schedule calls for Red Line service to start in 2022 and the Purple Line, which would involve less tunneling, to open in 2020. The MTA projects that about 27,000 people would ride the Red Line each day by 2030.
Kay said that if the projects are delayed, their cost would likely grow.
Rahn came under pressure from senators on both sides of the state's urban-rural divide to consider different factors in making his recommendation.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and the Red Line's most vocal supporter, urged Rahn to keep in mind that the projects are two of only six across the country to receive approval for federal funding. He also pointed to the economic development potential of the Red Line.
But Sen. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, asked Rahn to consider the need for new roads in the state's rural areas.
"How much do these projects absorb, and how much does that leave for other transportation issues around the state?" Edwards asked.
McFadden said he was pleased by Rahn's promise to be open-minded.
"I'm very encouraged by that, especially with the administration's emphasis on business development and jobs," he said.