Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland had a major campaign event last week. With all the trappings of a political rally, he revealed his “plan” to spend $9 billion to widen three of the State’s major highways. Hogan’s announcement needs to be seen more as a multi-layered bid for reelection than a major transportation policy initiative.
The timing of the event, the list of specific projects and the initiatives that were not part of the plan add up to a well-conceived launch of his 20018 campaign to win a second term as governor. What it did not do, however, is present a coherent route to an improved transportation system in Maryland.
Start with the splashy $9 billion price tag. You can easily visualize a campaign ad that features that figure as its centerpiece. The inconvenient truth is that neither the eventual cost nor the source of the funds is nearly as clear as Hogan has suggested.
First of all, in his plan, the funding comes from neither the federal nor the state government. It is, instead, a public/private partnership, taking advantage of legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly when they envisioned a Democrat sitting in the Governor’s chair. In exchange for a significant share of the revenues to be produced by the new toll lanes that Hogan is planning to have built, private developers will be asked to front the money for the projects.
Will he find private financing? Hard to know. The next formal step in the process is for the State to issue a “Request for Interest.” Besides not knowing if there will be sufficient interest to allow the three separate projects to move forward, there’s no guarantee that the terms that the Governor and his people assumed when they put together the announcement will be acceptable to potential developers.
A second unknown is what the three projects will actually cost. The $9 billion estimate is the result of taking the average cost per mile of new highway construction and multiplying it by the number of miles of new lanes to be built. Does that average figure take into account right-of-way acquisition? Does it take into account the challenges of building next to existing roadway? Does it take into account places where there is little or no excess space adjacent to current roads?
Even if all those questions have easy answers, the reality is that there hasn’t been a major construction project in the history of major construction projects that didn’t end up costing more than the original projections. Will those overruns be the responsibility of the developer or of the State?
The additions to the Maryland section of the Washington Beltway, I-270 and what is currently known as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway will all be toll lanes. That approach is not unprecedented. Consider a section of I-95 north of Baltimore as well as the Inner-County Connecter. Additionally, the Virginia section of the Beltway near Fairfax has toll lanes.
What will the relationship be between these new toll facilities and the existing ones? Who will set the level of tolls on these new facilities? How much do we know about the impact of the existing toll roads on non-toll road traffic? The campaign announcement provided little or no information on these “details” which could go a long way to determining how successful this new initiative will turn out to be.
There is another more overtly political dimension to the Governor’s highway announcement last week. The same chief executive who called the Baltimore Red Line a boondoggle and cancelled it has yet again snubbed the State’s largest city in his transportation priorities.
None of these project provide significant benefits for City residents. It’s clear that Hogan doesn’t expect many votes from that jurisdiction and would, actually, prefer to use Baltimore as a punching bag for his more conservative supporters.
What makes the decision to favor roads over mass transit even more significant is the Governor’s claim that he will be a fierce advocate for locating the new Amazon headquarters in Baltimore. The disconnect between actions and words is unlikely to be missed by Jeff Bezos.
These observations don’t mean that there isn’t a case to be made for the roads Hogan is proposing. It is likely to be a highly popular political gambit. On the other hand, that the new lanes will actually ease congestion, based on past history, is highly dubious. They will probably be over capacity the day the ribbons are cut.
Making this announcement one year before the 2018 election means that voters on Election Day will only know what Hogan has promised rather than what he has delivered. In light of his incredibly thin record of accomplishments this far, it makes a lot of sense for him to go bold at this point. Beyond good politics, however, the outcome is not going to be apparent for a long time.