No Way to Build a Railroad.

AuthorCortellessa, Eric

Maryland's outgoing GOP Governor Larry Hogan is eyeing a 2024 run for president. He is also leaving behind a mass transit mess.

On January 26, Maryland's Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced some good news--and some bad news. The good news was that the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail project to connect working-class Black and Latino suburbs immediately northeast of Washington, D.C., to job centers in the more affluent northwestern suburbs, was back on track. During the previous year and a half, most construction halted because the private companies that Governor Larry Hogan's administration had originally hired to build the line walked away from the job. But a new consortium of contractors had now been approved, MDOT proclaimed. Construction would soon resume, and the Purple Line would open, an official said, "as soon as possible."

The bad news? The new contract will cost taxpayers $1.4 billion more than the original deal would have and won't be completed until late 2026, more than four and a half years behind schedule.

The ballooning costs, MDOT explained, were the result of "supply chain issues, rising material costs, labor shortages and insurance increases" that "could not have been foreseen prior to the pandemic." It seems like a reasonable explanation--who hasn't felt the effects of COVID-driven inflation? The Maryland and D.C. press corps dutifully reported the assertion without question. But it turns out not to be true.

There certainly were events outside the governor's control that contributed mightily to the project's delays and cost overruns. Among these were a nuisance lawsuit by wealthy homeowners, a dispute with a freight rail monopoly over right-of-way, and changing environmental regulations--the kinds of factors that dog infrastructure projects all over the country.

In the case of the Purple Line, however, a series of decisions by the Hogan administration compounded the problem. Early in his tenure as governor, Hogan, a Republican who had opposed the Purple Line as a candidate in 2014, demanded that the project be redesigned and its costs cut to free up money for road construction. Some of that road building would benefit real estate ventures in which Hogan, a developer, had invested, as the Washington Monthly has previously reported. The redesign delayed the start of the light rail line's construction by almost two years.

Hogan's administration also negotiated a contract with a group of private construction firms that contained an unusual provision: In the case of delays lasting more than a year, the companies could abandon the work, no questions asked. When the inevitable delays ensued and the contractors threatened to walk, Hogan's hand-picked transportation secretary negotiated a new arrangement in which the companies agreed to stay and finish the project for less than $175 million. Then, on the eve of signing the deal, the administration backed away.

Had it gone through with the transportation secretary's deal, the...

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