Gov.-elect Larry Hogan

Two weeks from today, Republican Larry Hogan will be sworn in as Maryland’s next governor – and, soon thereafter, will have to decide about the future of the light-rail Purple Line, a project on which Hogan’s comments to date have veered from skepticism to sharp criticism.

Hogan appears to have three options: allow construction of the light-rail Purple Line through Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to move ahead this summer as planned; delay construction of the $2.45 billion, 16-mile long project while some preliminary work on it continues; or kill it.

If he opts for either of the latter alternatives, Maryland’s governmental structure is such that proponents of the Purple Line – a subject of debate and controversy in Montgomery County for three decades – would have very limited recourse.

“He has enormous power to kill it,” Donald Norris, director of the University of Maryland Baltimore County School of Public Policy and a veteran observer of state government, said in an interview this week. Norris’ comments reflect the view expressed privately in recent weeks by numerous state legislators and officials – many of them supporters of the Purple Line, and not particularly eager to publicly concede Hogan’s near-absolute power over the project’s future.

If Hogan does pull the plug on the Purple Line, supporters must hope that leaders of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly are willing to demand state funding for it – possibly tied politically to funding Baltimore’s $2.9 billion proposed Red Line light-rail project – during negotiations over high-priority items for which Hogan hopes to win approval.

Whether top legislative leaders would expend this kind of political capital for the two mass transit projects under such a scenario is hardly clear. But such a potential strategy may have received a boost with the recent elevation of Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore, a Red Line supporter, to the key post of House Appropriations Committee chair. (The prior chair, a veteran legislator from the rural Eastern Shore, failed to win re-election in November.)

 “If [Hogan] zero-funds the Purple Line, or the Red Line in Baltimore, then the legislature, through the budgetary process, can’t do anything,” said Norris, while adding: “That said, the legislature has enormous power otherwise—and they can make life so miserable for the governor that he wouldn’t do something like that or if he did, he would be brought right back to be accountable by the legislature.”

Behind Norris’ comments lie an essential difference in the way Maryland constitutional system of a strong governor and relatively weak legislature works, as compared to the nearby nation’s capital—where Congress regularly forces the president to accept its spending priorities by attaching them to bills needed to keep the federal government running.

In contrast, “the budget is an executive budget in Maryland,” Norris explained. “The governor essentially writes the check to himself. He prepares the budget…he submits it, and the legislature has something like 60 or 70 days to pass it or reject it. They cannot move money around; they cannot add money, they can only cut.”

That precludes the option of the General Assembly adding funding for the Purple Line and Red Line – presumably with heavy support from large, overwhelmingly Democratic delegations representing Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore city – and then seek to override a potential gubernatorial veto.

But to achieve the tax cuts and public spending reductions on which Hogan based his upset victory over Democrat Anthony Brown in November, he is going to have to negotiate with the legislature. Despite the governor’s power over budget-making, General Assembly approval is required not only on changes to tax law, but also on the altering statutory spending formulas that Hogan may have to change to realize some of his political goals.

Less problematic than trying to salvage such major projects in end-of-session negotiations as the General Assembly wraps up its work in April would be for proponents to convince Hogan of the benefits of the projects up-front. This helps to explain the current lobbying blitz from the Montgomery/Prince George’s and Baltimore business communities to convince Hogan of the economic development benefits of the Purple Line and Red Line, respectively.

A letter from the Economic Partners of the Purple Line, a business coalition that includes a dozen developers with major interests in Montgomery County and the greater Washington area, was sent to Hogan prior to Christmas, aggressively arguing the merits of the project and seeking a meeting with the governor-elect. The Hogan transition team has yet to respond to the coalition.

On the way to his victories in last year’s primary and general election campaigns, Hogan frequently criticized the Purple Line for its price tag and its ridership projections, which he suggested were inflated – while calling for increased emphasis on building of new roads. At one point, he did temper his rhetoric, saying he might support allowing planning on the Purple Line to proceed while delaying construction.

Since his victory, he has been largely silent on the future of the Purple Line – not mentioning it in a December speech before a Committee for Montgomery breakfast attended by hundreds of local political and business leaders. But, in what some supporters saw as close to a death knell for the project, Hogan – in comments published in the Washington Post a couple of days after the breakfast – declared: “The priorities are out of whack. Less than 10 percent of the people use mass transit…”

Hogan set off another effort to read the political tea leaves in comments on Baltimore’s economy last week published in the Baltimore Sun. He told the newspaper he considered the Red Line and the Purple Line to be “night and day,” noting that – while the state may not be able to afford either project – they serve different populations and accomplish different goals. The Red Line route runs from east to west through downtown Baltimore to the close-in suburbs of Baltimore County.

Asked to elaborate on what Hogan sees as the differences between the two projects as well as their relative merits, Hogan’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, responded Tuesday via email with a statement saying only: “Governor-elect Hogan’s primary focus right now is addressing our state’s $1.2 billion budget shortfall and making the difficult decisions that will help put an end to the structural deficits our state has been running year after year. He plans to study the merits of both transportation projects—and all proposed state projects, for that matter—very closely before making any decisions.”

Hogan’s schedule for a decision could in part be determined by the bidding schedule: Bids to attract a private partner for the Purple Line, originally slated for Jan. 9, have been pushed back to March 12. There are four so-called “concessionaires” preparing bids, and it could cost the state $8 million–$2 million per bidder – in stipends if the bids are submitted and Hogan then decides to delay or derail the project.

Under the Purple Line light-rail plan devised by the administration of outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley, a private partner would be expected to front $500 million to $900 million of the construction cost, on top of $900 million in federal funds and a total of $240 million from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Consequently, the amount of state funds under Hogan’s control that would be required–ranging from $360 million to $760 million – is difficult to determine until the bids from the concessionaires are received and evaluated.