Governor candidates are on separate tracks

September 17, 2014|By Michael Dresser | The Baltimore Sun

Anthony G. Brown brightens as he talks about building large transportation projects — including two light rail lines worth a combined $5 billion. To the Democratic nominee for governor, they are a key to creating jobs and stimulating Maryland's economy.

His Republican opponent, Larry Hogan, has ice in his voice as he vows to block construction of Baltimore's Red Line and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. The GOP candidate sees the mass transit projects as expensive boondoggles that would use money that should be spent on fixing roads.

Brown and Hogan are "polar opposites" on transportation issues as they vie for the support of Maryland voters, notes Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Their divergent views matter because Maryland's governor has the budgetary authority to decide whether a major transportation project goes forward — or not.

"Voters have got a really, really clear choice in this election," Norris said.

The question of what to do about transit is just the most glaring of many disagreements between the two over strategies to relieve traffic congestion and get moms and dads home in time to catch their kids' soccer games.

"Probably one of the biggest failings of the O'Malley-Brown administration has been transportation," Hogan says.

"I don't think Larry Hogan understands what it means to invest in infrastructure," says Brown.

The debate over transportation comes as Maryland finds itself flush with funds for the first time in many years as a result of the General Assembly's decision in 2013 to raise Maryland's gas tax for the first time since 1992. The added revenue has allowed the state to move forward with projects that had been stalled for years for lack of revenue.

The two candidates running to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley in the Nov. 4 election offer starkly different narratives about recent state history that shape their views on transportation issues.

To Hogan, the state's transportation program is in dire straits and its roads are crumbling because O'Malley, a Democrat, "robbed" the state's transportation trust fund of $1 billion instead of making cuts in the general fund to balance the budget.

"They drained all the money out of transportation for eight years," Hogan said. That, he contends, is why the administration felt compelled to raise gas taxes.

"We don't think there should have been the need for a gas tax increase in the first place," the Republican said. He added, without quite promising, that he would be "looking to roll that back as much as we possibly can" once the economy improves.

Hogan vowed a "shift in priorities" if he is elected.

"We're going to focus on building roads, and that's something this administration has not done," Hogan said. He also promises to immediately restore some $400 million a year in what's known as "highway user revenue" — state aid to local governments to pay for such basic projects as fixing potholes and repaving worn streets. Such aid to the counties was slashed by more than 90 percent during the recession, though some has been restored in recent years.

Unlike Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who campaigned on a since-fulfilled pledge to build the Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs, Hogan isn't running with any mega-projects on his mind.

"We're actually going to focus on getting the small, more important projects done," he said.

Apart from canceling construction of the Red Line and Purple Line, Hogan said the gas tax rollback, an increase in state road projects and the resumption of local aid can be accomplished without drastic cuts in existing transit services. For instance, he said he has no plans to undertake a restructuring of Baltimore's bus routes — a controversial cost-saving initiative launched by the Ehrlich administration, in which Hogan served as appointments secretary for four years.

Hogan said he had no role in transportation policy under Ehrlich. He said he disagreed with Ehrlich's decision to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from the transportation trust fund to close budget shortfalls in 2003 and 2004.

Warren Deschenaux, chief analyst for the General Assembly's nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, disputes Hogan's characterization of the diversion of funds as robbery.

"It was done by act of the General Assembly in full view of God and his creatures," Deschenaux said. He said the legislature's reduction of highway-user funding for local governments was a philosophical decision made under the pressure of the recession.

"We can't afford to keep doing that, so we stopped," Deschenaux said. The gas tax increase, he said, was a response to the increased cost of maintaining the transportation network — not any transfer of funds. The money diverted from state transportation projects was later repaid, Deschenaux said.

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