Larry Hogan's proposal for toll lanes for I-495, I-270 and (gasp) the B-W Parkway has plenty of critics -- as a false promise of jobs, a congestion-reduction plan that will actually find more cars filling more roads, or as a crowd-pleasing move to offset the ill will the governor engendered with his racially-tinged cancellation of Baltimore's Red Line.
/PM BlogSpace Report/ One of the opening guns for Larry Hogan’s re-election campaign came late last year when he rolled out a massive highway program to mute criticism of his earlier cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line light-rail project, generally acknowledged to be critical for lower-income city residents to access jobs.
The $9 billion plan to add toll lanes to I-495 and I-270 was a sop to the grumpy construction industry and its influential major union, the Laborers’ International (LIUNA), which returned the favor this week with a rare endorsement for Hogan, a GOP candidate the union had prominently opposed in the 2014 election.
Whether LIUNA would get anything like the net new union jobs from a public-private partnership that it might have gained from the federal and state-funded Red Line probably remains to be seen.
The highway project has plenty of critics -- as a false promise of jobs, a congestion-reduction plan that will actually find more cars filling more roads, or as a crowd-pleasing move to offset the ill will Hogan engendered with his cancellation of the Red Line.
In a StreetsBlog post, “How You Can Tell Larry Hogan’s Decision to Kill the Red Line Was Racially Discriminatory,” writer Alon Levy states “The Red Line was worth building because it mainly served central urban neighborhoods. Hogan's decision to kill it clearly discriminated against the predominantly black residents it would have served.
“When Hogan was elected in 2014, there were two major rail projects in the state about to begin construction: the Red Line, an east-west light rail subway in Baltimore serving predominantly black low-income neighborhoods on the West Side and East Side; and the Purple Line, a light rail line in the DC suburbs, serving both black middle-class Prince George’s County and white, wealthy Montgomery County, connecting suburban stations of the Washington Metro as a circumferential line.
“The two projects had similar projected costs per rider. But Hogan canceled the Red Line on cost grounds, while continuing with the Purple Line.
“Unlike older rail lines in Baltimore, the Metro Subway and the Light Rail, the Red Line was supposed to focus on service within the city, barely extending into the suburbs.” Hogan stripped out important features of the Purple Line and made it a public-private partnership with costs hard to compare, Levy notes. But “The racial discrimination implicit in canceling the Red Line but not the Purple Line prompted a Title VI civil rights lawsuit, and a federal investigation under the Obama administration. However, [transportation secretary Pete] Rahn himself mocked supporters of transit equity by saying that the federal government’s letter warning of a Title VI case came on January 19, a day before Trump’s inauguration, and that the Trump administration would not investigate Maryland for possible racial bias, but instead might investigate the U.S. DOT official who sent the warning letter for not going through proper channels.”
In July 2017 Angie Schmitt reports, also in Streetsblog, that the Trump DOT did in fact shut down the civil rights inquiry into Hogan’s shutdown of the Red Line (which cost the state $ million in federal transportation funds that couldn’t be shifted to other projects) She adds “Hogan’s decision to spike it [the Red Line] stood out both because he shifted money to road projects and gave the green light to the Purple Line, a rail project serving Maryland’s whiter and more affluent DC suburbs. “
Rahn, we remember, more recently found himself in deep ethical doo-doo in letting some early contracts for the Hogan highway boondoggle in a hurry and, ooops, his former employer wound up with a $68 million-plus plum. That uproar caused the process to start over, and much more deliberately.
“There is a long history,” Levy notes, “of transportation policy as a tool of the state government to isolate Baltimore’s majority-black population. In Places Journal, Alex MacGillis writes about the legacy of highway-fueled white flight in Baltimore, and the sheer resentment suburban residents feel toward transit serving the city (‘loot train’).”
Hogan has scanted funding to other Baltimore projects and school support. “What’s troubling,” Levy notes, “is that these decisions seem to be strengthening Hogan’s political hand” despite the state’s “blue” image. “His high approval rating suggests that his pattern of discrimination is not unpopular in middle-class white Maryland. Nor were his promises to redirect money to roads in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign unpopular in the Baltimore suburbs.
“Statewide, he won by 5 percentage points, but in Baltimore County, which comprises most of the Baltimore suburbs (Baltimore City is independent of the county), he won by 21 points. Baltimore County rarely leans this far Republican…. So Hogan got a special boost in the county, relative to the state. His brand of anti-urban racism is popular in the suburbs founded by people who fled the city and its burgeoning black population in the postwar years.”
So Hogan is trying to get some traction with the middle-class suburbs with his shift of emphasis from urban mass transit to suburban sprawl abetted by Interstate expansion.
Andrew Zaleski writes in CityLab “… in a state once considered a leader on sprawl-containing “Smart Growth” policies, this [Interstate toll lanes project] is also a kind of pave-a-thon from another era—one that comes with some extremely unrealistic cost estimates.” And Zaleski quotes salty critic and Maryland Reporter columnist Barry Rascovar to the point that the project faces years of legal and environmental reviews. “Indeed, Hogan may be out of office by the time the first ground-breaking ceremony takes place—which may be part of his strategy.”
Montgomery County Planning Board chair Casey Anderson told the state's Sierra Club Transportation Committee in late July “the project would be a waste of money that needs to be dedicated elsewhere."
“Study after study has shown that widened roads encourage more people to drive and inevitably those roads become congested again in just a few years. It’s called ‘induced demand,’ " Anderson continued.
“The project could actually cost taxpayers money. The state’s documents confirm that it will seek federal funds and loans for the projects. Similar tolls have not covered the construction costs of additional lanes built for I-95 north of Baltimore.
“This plan is happening,” Anderson continued, “as Maryland struggles to fix the Baltimore Metro, which closed for urgent repairs in February 2018 and after it forfeited $900 million in federal funds and lost billions of dollars canceling the essential Red Line East-West rail project.”
Instead, Anderson told the Sierra Club committee,
“We need a multi-state clean and equitable transportation policy that is focused on moving people not vehicles, emphasizes reliable, fast transit and use of electric vehicles, reduces pollution, positively impacts the health of all residents, allows people to live and work in pedestrian and bicycle-friendly communities, and provides everyone with a range of transportation options to meet their transportation needs.
“The Governor’s highway expansion proposal is a 1950s, car-centric, environmentally unfriendly approach to traffic congestion. It would greatly increase air and water pollution by encouraging more people to drive, primarily would serve the needs of high-income people who could afford to use the toll lanes, and ignores the vital role of transit and other clean transportation options in serving the needs of all income levels.
Anderson proposed a list of alternatives to expanding I-495 and I-270 that should be studied in the Environmental Impact Statement:
- Adding more High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes
- Adding I or 2 reversible lanes for use by express buses or BRT
- Running express buses or BRT on highway shoulders
- Expanding the MARC Brunswick line between Frederick & Washington DC to provide more frequent service weekdays, evenings and weekends
- Putting Bus Rapid Transit on MD 355 (Bethesda to Clarksburg)
- Creating more interconnected bike paths
- Adding more “park and ride” locations
- Incentivizing businesses to offer ride-sharing programs or van pools for their employees
- Using already-built Metrorail and Metrobus
Application of traffic management strategies and congestion management tools
- Review how much Purple Line will reduce traffic on 495
- Use a combination of alternatives listed above
The Sierra Club committee and staff raised concern that Rahn’s department and the Hogan sprawl effort would sidestep important criteria as the massive public-private highway project was pushed forward. As Anderson and the committee noted, these include carbon emissions, residential and commercial displacement (including medical facilities), effects of the Purple Line and possible MARC expansion on the transit-auto balance, and consideration of alternatives in Anderson’s list, including bus rapid transit.
The Sierra committee was also alarmed by a sideshow of the Hogan plan – a proposal to get the National Park Service to transfer its ownership of the major section of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the state. That would enable packaging new toll lanes into Hogan’s PPC scheme on that beloved and verdant post-war proto-interstate.
Hogan’s highway plan, launched amid the wreckage he has made of Maryland’s vaunted transit-based smart-growth heritage, has many hurdles to face – many put there by concerned citizens. As Rascovar shrewdly suggests, Hogan hopes it will help get him a second term as governor but he won’t have to face the music about its ultimate futility – let alone destruction of the state’s environment – while still in office. But the whiff of racism in his appeal to the suburbs will remain.