Ho­gan and the Pur­ple U-turn

The gover­nor put pol­i­tics and skep­ti­cism aside in sav­ing the light-rail plan

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ROBERT MCCART­NEY

It took a lot of spread­sheets to per­suade Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) to say “yes” — with con­di­tions— to the Pur­ple Line.

In mul­ti­ple meet­ings dur­ing his first five months in of­fice, Ho­gan pored over doc­u­ments packed with data on rid­er­ship, jobs and, above all, costs for the light-rail link be­tween Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties.

The long­time transit skep­tic was still study­ing them on Thurs­day be­fore the news con­fer­ence where he gave the pro­ject ten­ta­tive ap­proval.

“I’ve never seen a gover­nor de­vote this much time to a sin­gle pro­ject,” said Mary­land’s trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary, Pete K. Rahn, who has served five other gover­nors in top trans­porta­tion jobs in New Mexico and Mis­souri.

How Ho­gan came to ap­prove the pro­ject of­fers a valu­able early look at his gov­ern­ing style. It sug­gests he can be prag­matic and flex­i­ble, even at the risk of dis­ap­point­ing his con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal base. It also shows he drives a hard bar­gain, as be­fits a man who built a ca­reer in com­mer­cial real es­tate.

In the end, Ho­gan’s de­ci­sion came down to whether res­i­dents of Mary­land’s Washington sub­urbs would use the Pur­ple Line; whether the cost could be trimmed and the state’s con­tri­bu­tion low­ered; and whether he could build it and still meet his pri­mary goal of boost­ing spend­ing

on highways and bridges.

The gover­nor’s process “had no hint of pol­i­tics or par­ti­san­ship what­so­ever,” said Mont­gomery County Ex­ec­u­tive Isiah “Ike” Leggett (D), a strong Pur­ple Line ad­vo­cate. “I think you have to give him very much credit that he was will­ing, open and ready to lis­ten, and his trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary was ex­tremely open and will­ing to be a part­ner.”

Rahn said he con­cluded early on that it was a good idea to build the 16-mile rail line — pro­vided the cost could be re­duced suf­fi­ciently from the orig­i­nal price tag of $2.45 bil­lion. But Rahn wasn’t sure un­til the very end that Ho­gan would agree.

“He had a lot of ques­tions. Ev­ery time Imet with him, I would leave with another list,” Rahn said. “The gover­nor was skep­ti­cal in the be­gin­ning. His po­si­tion, ob­vi­ously, evolved.”

For Ho­gan, a first-time of­fice­holder, there were plenty of po­lit­i­cal rea­sons to sim­ply kill the Pur­ple Line.

The gover­nor was elected with over­whelm­ing sup­port in ru­ral and outer sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties that don’t use rail transit and would not ben­e­fit di­rectly from the pro­ject. He lost Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s by big mar­gins.

Ho­gan has com­plained for years that Mary­land was spend­ing too much money on transit at the ex­pense of roads, which more peo­ple use. On the cam­paign trail, he said Mary­land “sim­ply can­not af­ford this pro­ject right now.” When he hired Rahn — one of his only top aides from out­side Mary­land— Ho­gan touted him as a road builder.

The gover­nor also has a history of doubt­ing the prom­ises of traf­fic re­lief and eco­nomic growth that transit back­ers rou­tinely ad­vance to pro­mote their projects. He is a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Mary­land Public Pol­icy In­sti­tute, a free-mar­ket-ori­ented think tank that con­tends light-rail projects are never eco­nom­i­cally jus­ti­fied.

Rahn said he “was en­cour­aged be­cause the gover­nor could have said quite early, ‘ We’re not do­ing this.’ He re­mained open through­out this process.”

Even as he ap­proved the Pur­ple Line, Ho­gan de­cided to kill another light-rail pro­ject, Bal­ti­more’s $2.9 bil­lion Red Line, which he dis­missed as eco­nom­i­cally un­fea­si­ble. The de­ci­sion showed his will­ing­ness to put the ax to projects he con­sid­ers a waste of money. It also freed up plenty of fund­ing for highways and bridges through­out the state.

In what an­a­lysts called a tough­minded ne­go­ti­at­ing ploy, the gover­nor at­tached con­di­tions to the Pur­ple Line deal de­signed to shift costs away from the state.

Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s will have to kick in more money, Ho­gan said. It will be hard for them to de­cline af­ter say­ing for years what an eco­nomic plus the Pur­ple Line would be.

“That puts this squarely in the lap of the coun­ties, who have gone on record on how much they want this,” Greater Washington Board of Trade Pres­i­dent James C. Dine­gar said.

At Rahn’s re­quest, Leggett has ex­pressed will­ing­ness to con­trib­ute up to $50 mil­lion more to the pro­ject. But Prince Ge­orge’s County Ex­ec­u­tive Rush­ern L. Baker III (D), who hasn’t yet talked to Rahn about it, said that would be too much for his county, which is less af­flu­ent and which soundly re­jected his re­cent pro­posal to raise prop­erty taxes to ben­e­fit public schools.

“My gut re­ac­tion is . . . we don’t have $50 mil­lion,” Baker said. “And I can’t see the coun­cil go­ing along­with” such a large ad­di­tional fund­ing com­mit­ment.

As he has done else­where in An­napo­lis, Ho­gan pushed Rahn to ag­gres­sively cut costs as­so­ci­ated with the Pur­ple Line. Rahn got in the habit of say­ing the goal was to pro­duce “a Chevy prod­uct” rather than “a Cadil­lac.”

In per­haps the big­gest change, the plan now is to re­duce the fre­quency of the ser­vice so the two-car trains run ev­ery sev­e­nand a half min­utes in­stead of ev­ery six min­utes as planned.

Ho­gan also is ask­ing what­ever pri­vate com­pany wins the right to con­struct the line to find ways to re­duce costs be­yond what Rahn has trimmed. And he wants the pri­vate sec­tor to pick up a big­ger share of the fi­nanc­ing.

The gover­nor spent a lot of time with spread­sheets com­par­ing rid­er­ship pro­jec­tions with those of other light-rail lines. He re­peat­edly told Rahn and oth­ers that he thought some of the fore­casts for job cre­ation along the Pur­ple Line’s route were ex­ag­ger­ated.

As a re­sult, back­ers who lob­bied both Ho­gan and Rahn ad­justed their pitches.

In­par­tic­u­lar, Leggett and Baker said they made a point of re­spect­ing Ho­gan’s skep­ti­cism when they met with him on May 21 to make a fi­nal push for the pro­ject.

The two sur­prised Ho­gan by ac­knowl­edg­ing that the pro­ject wasn’t a “sil­ver bullet” for their coun­ties’ economies.

Leggett said he couldn’t give the Pur­ple Line an “A-plus” rat­ing, but only a “solid B” or “B-plus.” But even if the Pur­ple Line gen­er­ated only half the num­ber of jobs that were pro­jected, Leggett said, it was still worth do­ing.

That was es­pe­cially true given that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has rec­om­mended pick­ing up $900 mil­lion of the cost, Leggett said.

“At a time when you have fewer fed­eral dol­lars be­ing given, when you can’t even get a trans­porta­tion bill through Congress . . . a B or B-plus in that en­vi­ron­ment is good,” Leggett said.

Like­wise, busi­ness lead­ers be­gan ar­gu­ing that even if the gover­nor didn’t be­lieve that the Pur­ple Line would spur de­vel­op­ment to add tens of thou­sands of new jobs, he should ac­cept that work­ers in Prince Ge­orge’s and Mont­gomery need the line— which will con­nect four Metro sta­tions and cross an area not served by Metro­rail — to get to jobs that al­ready ex­ist.

By the end, Ho­gan was swayed enough that some of his com­ments echoed what back­ers have been say­ing all along. “We saw alot of the ben­e­fits of it, with re­spect to eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, job cre­ation,” Ho­gan said. “There’s no ques­tion in my mind that it’s go­ing to be worth­while long-term.”

Ho­gan also was im­pressed by data in­di­cat­ing that res­i­dents of the Washington sub­urbs were more likely to use transit than res­i­dents in Bal­ti­more. The Pur­ple Line “will be built in a part of our state that has demon­strated strong sup­port and use of mass transit,” he said.

It wasn’t clear ex­actly when Ho­gan made up his mind.

“It’s not like there was a mo­ment when he sort of raised his fin­ger in the air and shouted, ‘Eureka!’” said Matthew A. Clark, Ho­gan’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor.

Rahn says he pressed Ho­gan about the de­ci­sion dur­ing their re­cent trade mis­sion to Asia, which in­cluded a ride on a high­speed Ja­panese ma­glev train.

“I would pester him, and he would rib me,” Rahn said. “There would be op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­ment on pur­ple-col­ored things.”

When they re­turned from the trip in early June, Ho­gan had another, more per­sonal chal­lenge to deal with: He had found a tu­mor in his neck and was un­der­go­ing tests that even­tu­ally would show he had ad­vanced non-Hodgkin’s lym­phoma, a type of can­cer.

Hav­ing promised a Pur­ple Line de­ci­sion by theendof June, Ho­gan spent the next two weeks jug­gling doc­tors’ vis­its and his reg­u­lar work du­ties with then-ever-end­ing spread­sheets.

He an­nounced his di­ag­no­sis on Mon­day and called Rahn on Tues­day evening to tell him his Pur­ple Line de­ci­sion.

The news con­fer­ence was sched­uled for Thurs­day. There were mul­ti­ple charts on dis­play to ex­plain the nearly $2 bil­lion in new roads fund­ing, which Ho­gan dis­cussed in great de­tail be­fore turn­ing his at­ten­tion to light-rail.

There were no charts about the Pur­ple Line. But the gover­nor wore a pur­ple neck­tie, which he later said was cho­sen to of­fer a coy hint that he was not killing the pro­ject.

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