Laslo Boyd: Boondoggle

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Larry Hogan’s announcement that his administration is pulling the plug on the proposed Red Line in Baltimore has provoked quite a set of reactions.  For all those citizens who didn’t bother to vote last November, it is a vivid reminder that elections do indeed have consequences.  For those who supported the Republican governor, it justifies their view that things would be different in Maryland with Hogan rather than Anthony Brown in charge.

The Governor previewed his skepticism about the project while still a candidate last year, but then put off making an official decision for the first few months of his administration.  His rationale was that he wanted to do a careful study of both the Red Line and the proposed Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.  Many observers noted that the transit projects had the added weight of being in three of the four jurisdictions that Hogan lost in the General Election.  The other ominous sign was Hogan’s appointment of Pete Rahn, described as a highway guy, as Secretary of Transportation.

That trifecta wasn’t a scattering of tea leaves; it was a set of smoke signals.   No one should have been surprised when the ax fell, but supporters of the Red Line were left with no backup plan and a feeling that Hogan had struck a disastrous blow to Baltimore’s economic future.

Now that the dust has settled a bit after the announcement, I’ve read a number of informative, often colorfully worded, analyses, and am still wondering if the Hogan Administration will have more to say about future plans for Baltimore.  However, I’ve come to two conclusions about the decision and am left with one big question.

Right after the fate of both transit proposals was revealed, Robert McCarthy of the Washington Post wrote a long, detailed description of the review process that the Governor engaged in with respect to the Purple Line.  It had all the appearance of a story that got the full cooperation of, and perhaps was even initiated by, the Governor’s staff.  

Hogan was portrayed as deeply involved in a protracted examination of the intricate details of the Purple Line.   As presented by McCarthy, the Governor sent various pieces back to the transportation planners to revise and drove a hard bargain before he finally consented to a version with a significantly lower share of state financing.

There were two messages to come out of this narrative, one intended, the other probably not.  For all the voters who supported Hogan last November but are opposed to transit spending, the take-away was that the Governor made sure no taxpayer money was being wasted and that those urban counties wouldn’t get special treatment from the State.

The other lesson that leaps off those pages is that Hogan is a micromanager.  I have heard that charge made against him by other officials in Annapolis, but I’m a bit surprised to see it as a bragging point coming from his office.

That leads to my first conclusion:  the Red Line never had a chance.  Hogan and Rahn went through the charade of meeting with local officials in the Baltimore Region, leaders of the business community there—who were strongly in support of the project—and advocates who saw the Red Line as a great way for the State to help revive Baltimore’s economy.  It was all for show.  No one in the Baltimore Sun was given an inside story on how carefully the Administration had reviewed the Red Line before making a final decision. 

As to the rejection itself, the language tells all.  To call the Red Line a “boondoggle”, as Hogan did, is to assert that ten years of planning and numerous approvals at the regional, state and Federal levels were all a sham.  That assertion is quite different than saying that the Governor disagreed with the objectives, or thought they couldn’t be achieved, or thought that it was too expensive for the State to afford. 

He did say all those things as well, but his view that the project had no merit at all and was essentially a raid on the State piggy bank makes clear that in the end his decision was a purely political one.

From Hogan’s perspective, the political calculation must look like a good one.  He lost Baltimore City in the election.  He has been feuding publicly with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.  There’s plenty of anti-city bias in his core constituencies around the State.   The Red Line decision for Hogan had no political down sides and plenty of positive outcomes.

That leaves an important question for the future, however.  At various points in the past, both in his campaign and since he took office, Hogan has talked about the importance of reviving Baltimore City’s economy.  Some of his remarks have even sounded like he understands that a healthy Baltimore City is good for the region and the state.

No one who cares about the City’s viability and future can conclude that Hogan has been good for Baltimore so far.  Two of his decisions—cutting geographically indexed school aid in his last budget and demolishing the Red Line—have been huge losses for both the City budget and the City’s future.

Hogan’s high profile presence during the Freddie Grey riots was admirable.  His freeing up of over $3 million for summer youth jobs and $4 million for business recovery also helped.  But they are in the grand scheme of things only small band-aids.

In addition to promising to cut taxes, Hogan’s gubernatorial campaign emphasized his intent to grow Maryland’s economy.   He has proclaimed that the State is now “Open for Business.”  We are told that his Administration intends to create a more positive business climate.  You can only hope that means more than that whoever answers the phone at a state agency is friendly and courteous.

What’s his plan for Baltimore?  One traditional way to stimulate the economy is with cranes and shovels, with major capital construction projects.  In turning his back on a huge one that was teed up for him, Hogan leaves dangling the question of what does he intend to do.

If his future decisions are as driven by political calculations as the Red Line one was, Baltimore is in for a long and difficult four years.  If Hogan decides to be governor of the entire state, including Baltimore, we should see signs of specific ideas coming soon. 

That choice may well define his time in office.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.