Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced a major shift in state transportation spending to prioritize the maintenance and expansion of roads and bridges over investment in mass transit projects.
While unveiling plans to spend $2 billion on roads — including $845 million on entirely new projects — at an Annapolis news conference on Thursday, the governor finally revealed his highly-anticipated decisions for two light rail proposals.
Hogan gave conditional approval to the $2.4 billion Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs but axed the $2.9 billion Red Line in Baltimore. The latter project’s plan to build a $1 billion tunnel was labeled a “fatal flaw.”
Roads are “top priority”
“I’ve made it very clear that building, maintaining, and fixing Maryland’s roads and bridges is our top transportation priority and it is a top priority of our administration,” the Republican governor said.
“In January, our administration inherited a state infrastructure that for years had been severely underfunded. The previous administration slashed funding for local road improvements by up to 96 percent,” said Hogan, whose statewide road building plans mark a clean break from that recent past.
The governor called for $1.3 billion to be added to the $625 million already in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s construction budget for a slew of road and bridge jobs — from widening congested corridors such as Rt. 404 and studying congestion relief on I-270 to repaving 2,000 miles of state highways and “fixing every single structurally deficient bridge in the state.”
Purple Line survives — for now
Since taking office Hogan has called the 16-mile light rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton too expensive, ordering the four contractor teams competing for the construction bid to shave hundreds of millions from the its growing price tag.
On Thursday, the governor announced his intention to reduce the state’s upfront commitment for construction by $500 million by 1) running trains less frequently (every 7.5 minutes instead of 6 minutes) and making other unspecified changes to the Purple Line’s scope, 2) asking the private sector firm that wins the long-term concession to front more cash, and 3) squeezing more money out of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“Under our more efficient and more cost effective version of the Purple Line, the state’s share of the project will be $168 million, a fraction of the original proposal,” Hogan said. “By reducing this cost, we free up hundreds of millions of dollars for other important projects across Maryland.”
The Purple Line’s route and number of stations will not be changed, said Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn.
Will counties show Hogan the money?
Montgomery County executive Ike Leggett has said his county is tapped out, but released a statement following Hogan’s news conference indicating a willingness to work with state officials.
“I look forward to further discussions with the Governor over every aspect of the Purple Line — cost, design, construction schedule, and the role Montgomery County will be able to play in making the Purple Line a reality,” Leggett said.
“Prince George’s County has already committed an extraordinary amount for local governments to contribute toward a state project. I will thoroughly review this proposal along with my budget, finance, economic development, and transportation advisers to assess what this means for Prince George’s County,” said the county executive Rushern Baker in a post-news conference statement.
Transit advocates cautiously praised the project’s conditional approval but were concerned ongoing negotiations over price could further delay a project whose construction was scheduled to begin this year, buttressed by the promise of $900 million in federal aid.
“This is a big lift for Montgomery and Prince George’s County,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a group that opposes highway projects in favor of public transit.
“It is our hope that it doesn’t cause protracted negotiations. It is our hope that the governor is willing to give a little and put more state dollars back into the project, but the key is to not lose the federal funding,” Schwartz said.
Sec. Rahn indicated the state will be ready to make a decision on which contractor team submitted the most effective design changes in the next four to five months, essentially ruling out construction until 2016.
I-270 set for congestion study
There may be no group happier about the idea of spending $2 billion on roads and bridges than AAA Mid-Atlantic, one of the most vocal critics of former Governor Martin O’Malley.
“Governor Hogan hit a grand slam,” said AAA’s Lon Anderson, who echoed Hogan’s criticism that the O’Malley administration siphoned money from the state transportation trust fund for wasteful purposes. “I look at it as a rebalancing. Each administration comes in and sets priorities. The O’Malley administration came in and made transit its focus.”
Anderson said the Maryland Department of Transportation intends to use $100 million to study congestion relief on I-270 similar to how Virginia plans to transform I-66: use existing or additional lane capacity to manage congestion through tolls, HOV restrictions, or boosting bus transit.
“They want to make this a showcase for how technology can help better manage traffic,” Anderson said. “They are going to ask contractors and seek ideas and bids about what they would do on a certain budget to make 270 work better.”
The $100 million will fund a test program called “Innovative Congestion Reduction Strategies.”
A mix of roads and rails
Transit advocates reacted negatively to Hogan’s frugal approach to the Purple and Red Lines on the same day he threw $2 billion at highways, but transportation policy experts said the governor faces a difficult balance in such a diverse state.
“The governor has made it clear he has a priority to fix the roads throughout the state,” said Paul Lewis, director of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C. research group.
The suggestion that any project — highway or transit — will reduce congestion is dubious, Lewis said.
“If you look at the projections over the next 25 years, the region is supposed to grow by a million people and that will lead to congestion. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments estimates there will be another 400,000 drivers on the road by 2040,” Lewis said.
“Congestion is going to increase regardless of whether the Purple Line is built. It is more of an economic tool that will help shape new patterns of development in the region. It is an accessibility project that helps diversify the transportation mix to provide options for people,” Lewis said.
In fact, the economic development benefits of the Purple Line were key selling points when local officials relentlessly lobbied Hogan in recent months.
“In a growing region you need to have a diversified transportation network. Most people do get around by the roads but that is not just single occupancy vehicles, It’s also transit buses and carpoolers. Transit is part of that mix,” said Lewis, who said the Eno Center evaluates all projects together rather than separating out highway investments from transit.
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