MD’s Transportation Mistakes

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I am not, as anyone who knows me, will attest, one of those annoying “Virginia does everything better than Maryland” people. I lived there, I moved here, and it’s better here. That said, there are times when Maryland does things that make no sense.

When the General Assembly passed the gas tax increase in 2014 to pay for needed transportation projects like the Purple Line, it also passed a bill providing for public private partnerships (commonly referred to as P3s) to build and operate the Purple Line - interestingly, as I noted last year during the campaign, not for the Baltimore Red Line. Never did get a satisfactory answer to that distinction.

The history of P3s is, to be charitable, mixed. In some cases, it’s been disastrous, and in others not quite so bad. Denver’s light rail is often held up as a good example, but it really stands alone. Earlier, California had two decades of largely awful results in the transportation field.

Virginia has some significant P3 experience as well. Under its 1995 P3 act, many projects have been designed and built under the P3 umbrella. A 2012 study concluded, among other findings, that

the detailed assumptions . . . used to determine the best procurement method—are not publicly disclosed before a Comprehensive Agreement is signed and the public is not given clear evidence of why it is better to use a PPTA process with a higher cost of capital than traditional approaches to building or procuring projects.

So it is noteworthy that, as everyone in Montgomery County (I’m looking at you, George Leventhal) grinds their teeth waiting for Larry Hogan to - most likely - not pursue the Purple Line, Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration in Virginia has done a study concluding that

keeping the financing and construction of a proposed expansion of Interstate 66 under state control — rather than handing those responsibilities off to private investors — could net the commonwealth $200 million to $500 million in toll revenue over 40 years to be used for other Northern Virginia transportation projects.

A whole lot of transportation projects could be funded with up to $500 million.

In other words, Virginia is on the verge of jettisoning a process with a spotty history of success, just as Maryland embarks on that process. Why would we do this?

Partly, it’s folly. We’ve never done P3s here, so it’s the new thing, and it must be good. There were whispers last year that there were deals galore going to be cut between a Brown administration and a whole slew of big companies to build the Purple Line. Well, that obviously ain’t gonna happen now - Brown did the unthinkable and lost. But a lot of businesses are still pushing hard for the Purple Line while mouthing all the right platitudes about transit needs - but remember, there’s gold in them thar hills - or in this case, tracks.

But there’s a practical reason why we can’t just build the Purple Line ourselves (with federal help, of course). We don’t have the money. Period. We waited too long to increase the gas tax (it was unchanged from 1992 until 2014), for years the General Assembly and a succession of governors raided the transportation trust fund, and perhaps worst of all, we spent all of our money building a road that virtually nobody drives on - the ICC. The cupboard is bare, we are just beginning to build up our transportation funds, we have commitments for the ICC that extend to the horizon and beyond, and now we are going to embark on the use of a historically disastrous process that the state next door - with a Democratic governor - is getting ready to abandon.

Purple Line or no Purple Line, the end result is very likely to be bad for Maryland. We are in a fix of our own making, with no obvious solution no matter what Larry Hogan decides.

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