Defin­ing choice awaits Md. gover­nor

He could be la­beled ide­o­logue or traitor to his val­ues

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ROBERT MCCART­NEY

Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s im­mi­nent choice about the Pur­ple Line will play a large role in defin­ing whether his first year in of­fice steers his Mary­land Repub­li­can Party to­ward the mid­dle or gives Democrats a cud­gel to beat him as an anti-spend­ing ide­o­logue.

In nearly five months of study­ing the light-rail line, Ho­gan has im­pressed ob­servers with his will­ing­ness to con­sider build­ing it even though he said flatly dur­ing last year’s gu­ber­na­to­rial cam­paign that Mary­land “sim­ply can­not af­ford this project right now.”

The gover­nor’s open­ness partly re­flects his de­sire to project an im­age as a prag­matic stew­ard who does what’s best for the state rather than a knee-jerk con­ser­va­tive as Democrats would like to por­tray him, an­a­lysts said.

Ho­gan also may be show­ing un­ex­pected in­ter­est in the 16- mile link be­tween Bethesda in Mont­gomery County and New Car­roll­ton in Prince Ge­orge’s County be­cause of the over­whelm­ing sup­port it en­joys from Wash­ing­ton-area busi­ness lead­ers, in­clud­ing some Repub­li­cans. Top lo­cal ex­ec­u­tives of 19 ma­jor com­pa­nies — in­clud­ing Ver­i­zon, Ge­ico and Cap­i­tal One bank — sent Ho­gan a let­ter Thurs­day back­ing the Pur­ple Line.

But Ho­gan’s con­tin­u­ing doubts about the project’s cost and benefits show he still shares some anti-tran­sit views that he and his con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers have long cham­pi­oned. He has re­peat­edly ex­pressed dis­be­lief in pro­jec­tions that the project would gen­er­ate tens of thou­sands of jobs. He has said Mary­land needs to shift spend­ing from mass tran­sit to roads and bridges.

So Ho­gan’s de­ci­sion not only will make or break the rail line, which is be­ing over­seen by the

Mary­land Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion, but also will be his first big ad­min­is­tra­tion-defin­ing choice.

Although Ho­gan in­sists he can sup­port mass tran­sit if the price is right, he was ac­tive in the past in groups that rou­tinely de­cried such in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing as boon­dog­gles.

The gover­nor is a for­mer direc­tor of the Mary­land Public Pol­icy In­sti­tute, a Rockville-based think tank whose pres­i­dent says ligh­trail projects such as the Pur­ple Line are never jus­ti­fied eco­nom­i­cally. Ho­gan also founded the grass-roots group Change Mary­land, which strongly de­nounced what it saw as ex­ces­sive gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

Pur­ple Line sup­port­ers worry that such a back­ground pre­vents Ho­gan from see­ing the po­ten­tial benefits of public in­vest­ment in trans­porta­tion.

Tom Boz­zuto, chief ex­ec­u­tive of a re­gional devel­op­ment com­pany based in Green­belt, said he viewed Ho­gan as “a man of in­tegrity” who was mak­ing an hon­est as­sess­ment of the project. But Boz­zuto wor­ried that Ho­gan’s reser­va­tions about the Pur­ple Line are short-sighted.

“Peo­ple like Ho­gan get tripped up be­cause he sees, as most busi­ness peo­ple see, that our gov­ern­ment has spent more money than it’s taken in, and the econ­omy of Mary­land hasn’t ben­e­fited,” Boz­zuto said.

“It be­comes too easy to move from that to the con­clu­sion that all spend­ing is bad, with­out rec­og­niz­ing the value of in­vest­ment spend­ing,” he said. Boz­zuto, who called him­self “a con­ser­va­tive Demo­crat,” is in­ter­ested in in­vest­ing along the Pur­ple Line’s route but does not own land there.

It’s hard to overestimate how much the Pur­ple Line de­ci­sion will shape per­cep­tions of Ho­gan’s first year in of­fice. Af­ter de­fy­ing the odds to win the gov­er­nor­ship in an over­whelm­ingly Demo­cratic state, his big­gest po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge has been to tug Mary­land to the right on spend­ing and taxes with­out alien­at­ing vot­ers who have sup­ported ac­tivist gov­ern­ment.

In his first Gen­eral As­sem­bly ses­sion ear­lier this year, Ho­gan suc­ceeded in re­strain­ing spend­ing modestly with­out set­ting off too many par­ti­san fire­works. He also won praise over­all for his role in han­dling the Bal­ti­more ri­ots in April.

But it will be hard to avoid of­fend­ing some­one with a de­ci­sion as large as the Pur­ple Line.

If Ho­gan kills it, he risks giv­ing up the GOP’s chances to make in­roads among in­de­pen­dents and con­ser­va­tive Democrats in Mont­gomery County. It is the state’s big­gest ju­ris­dic­tion and one of only four in the state that Ho­gan did not win in Novem­ber.

Ho­gan also would be vul­ner­a­ble to crit­i­cism that he gave up $900 mil­lion in fed­eral fund­ing rec­om­mended for the Pur­ple Line — money that wouldn’t come to Mary­land if the project dies.

If Ho­gan builds it, how­ever, he alien­ates vot­ers in ru­ral ar­eas and outer sub­urbs who think the state al­ready does too much for the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs. They voted over­whelm­ingly for Ho­gan and crave in­creased spend­ing for their roads and bridges.

Then there’s the out­stand­ing ques­tion of the Red Line, a pro­posed light-rail project in Bal­ti­more that would cost even more than the Pur­ple Line. If Ho­gan ap­proved the Pur­ple Line, there would be lit­tle money left over for the Red Line.

Two re­cent de­vel­op­ments have in­creased the po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge for Ho­gan. It emerged Wed­nes­day that Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Pete K. Rahn has en­dorsed build­ing the project, pro­vid­ing that its $2.45 bil­lion cost is re­duced and Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties kick in more money.

(Rahn’s ac­tion was dis­closed by two of­fi­cials who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity. The gover­nor’s of­fice nei­ther con­firmed nor de­nied the re­port but sug­gested it might not be Rahn’s “fi­nal” rec­om­men­da­tion.)

State politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors said Rahn’s move had put Ho­gan in a box.

“If Ho­gan moves for­ward with the project, he looks weak and pushed into it by Rahn, de­spite the strong op­po­si­tion of many Repub­li­cans,” Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity gov­ern­ment pro­fes­sor David Lublin, a vo­cal critic of the Pur­ple Line, wrote in his blog, Sev­enth State. “If Ho­gan nixes it, he looks like he has ig­nored the ad­vice of the Sec­re­tary he charged with it and tran­sit ad­vo­cates will beat him over the head about it.”

In ad­di­tion, Ho­gan seemed to have forgotten his anti-spend­ing phi­los­o­phy dur­ing a re­cent trip to Ja­pan, when he ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm for a high-tech, mag­netic lev­i­ta­tion (ma­glev) train that he rode there. He said he will re­quest a $28 mil­lion fed­eral grant to study build­ing such a train be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Bal­ti­more, a link that would cost at least $10 bil­lion.

In re­sponse, the pro-tran­sit blog Greater Greater Wash­ing­ton wrote a teas­ing head­line: “Mary­land’s gover­nor thinks the Pur­ple Line is too ex­pen­sive, but wants to build a $10 bil­lion ma­glev. Huh?”

Ho­gan spokesman Doug Mayer said the two projects were “ap­ples and or­anges” be­cause the state hasn’t been asked to spend money on a ma­glev train.

Ho­gan said a month ago that the Pur­ple Line’s es­ti­mated cost of $153 mil­lion per mile was “not ac­cept­able” and would have to be “dramatically lower” to win ap- proval.

Sup­port­ers say the line is vi­tal to connect the Metro­rail sys­tem with Am­trak and MARC com­muter lines, and to link job cen­ters such as Sil­ver Spring and Bethesda with the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land and other neigh­bor­hoods. They say it would fo­cus growth, at­tract jobs and re­ju­ve­nate aging sub­urbs.

De­fend­ers also noted that the price is lower than the cost of com­pa­ra­ble projects else­where. Ac­cord­ing to the Trans­port Politic blog, the cost per mile for light-rail projects in Port­land, Ore., Los An­ge­les and Bos­ton ranges from $205 mil­lion to $302 mil­lion.

In ad­di­tion, the Pur­ple Line gets a “medium-high” rat­ing for cost-ef­fec­tive­ness from the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Of seven ma­jor light-rail projects around the coun­try in the same stage of devel­op­ment, only one other project, in Den­ver, gets such a high rat­ing.

None of that im­presses some Pur­ple Line crit­ics, who say the fed­eral stan­dards are biased in fa­vor of light-rail.

“Light rail is just not a cost-ef­fec­tive mode of trans­porta­tion,” said Christo­pher B. Sum­mers, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Public Pol­icy In­sti­tute. “Rapid bus is a much more cost-ef­fec­tive way to go.”

Ho­gan was a direc­tor of the free-mar­ket-ori­ented in­sti­tute from 2011 to 2013. He “has a very in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the in­sti­tute’s work,” Sum­mers said, and the group pro­vided much of its work to the gover­nor’s tran­si­tion team.

The gover­nor’s of­fice said Fri­day that Ho­gan still has not made a de­ci­sion but plans to do so by the end of June. Although his staff was tight-lipped about the dis­cus­sions, it seemed clear the project would win ap­proval only if it is scaled back con­sid­er­ably.

A Repub­li­can who oc­ca­sion­ally ad­vises Ho­gan, and who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to be can­did, pre­dicted that the project was dead: “He’s not go­ing to build it, un­less some­thing changes. The num­bers just don’t work.”

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