2015 | Politics

Politics Working Against Approval of Purple Line, Hogan Transition Team Member Says

Veteran columnist Blair Lee offers blunt assessment of next four years in Annapolis

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Purple Line image via Montgomery Planning Board website.

With Gov.-elect Larry Hogan due to be sworn into office on Jan. 21, a member of the Hogan transition team today offered a blunt assessment of the politics of Annapolis over the next four years. And it doesn’t spell good news for Montgomery County — and the proposed light-rail Purple Line in particular.

While emphasizing he was speaking for himself – and not on behalf of Hogan or the transition team – veteran columnist and commentator Blair Lee IV noted that Hogan had run in this year’s general election opposed to both the Purple Line and another major mass transit project: the proposed Red Line through the city of Baltimore.

“Only 10 percent of Marylanders use mass transit,” Lee said during a panel discussion at the 2015 Annual Legislative Outlook breakfast of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. “And, you have to ask, if you’re Governor Hogan, ‘Let’s see. In Montgomery County, I got 37 percent of the vote. In Baltimore city, I got 22 percent of the vote. And in [Prince George’s County], I got 15 percent of the vote. Do I really want to spend $1.5 billion making those folks happy [by] reversing my position and ticking off the people who did elect me?”

The $1.5 billion reference involves the estimated state funds required to build the Purple Line and Red Line, in conjunction with federal and local contributions. The 16-mile long Purple Line, proposed to run through Montgomery and Prince George’s County, has a total price tag of $2.45 billion – with $360 million to $760 million coming from the state, contingent on how much would be offered by a private partnership that would construct and operate the system.

Lee’s comments came during a broader assessment of the situation in Annapolis over the next four years, in which he foresees continuing confrontation between Hogan and a Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

“Larry Hogan and the Democrats have fundamentally different world views – and, more importantly, different constituencies,” Lee said. “So do you really think the Democrats are going to abandon their constituencies in order to accommodate Larry Hogan’s reforms?”

“That’s why I think we’re going to have a train wreck,” added Lee, invoking a metaphor with more than the Purple Line in mind.

With regard to the latter project, Lee suggested the politics of the situation are the mirror image of that which has faced recent Democratic governors – who have owed their election to a combination of vote-rich Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as Baltimore city.

Hogan “is looking at a political proposition that is exactly the same proposition that every Democratic governor has made in the last 40 years – which is basically to shortchange rural, roads and bridges in favor of mass transit in those three jurisdictions where they traditionally get elected,” Lee said.

Lee, who backed Hogan over Democratic Gov. Anthony Brown in a column published prior to Election Day, continued: “All of the people who are now coming to [Hogan] and saying ‘You must find common ground’ — the environmental lobby, the mass transit people, the public employee unions, the teachers, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun — these people four years from now will be cutting Larry Hogan’s throat. He knows that, they know that. How much is he going to accommodate them? Isn’t he going to play to his base? That’s Politics 101.”

When asked later whether Hogan might be swayed by arguments that the Purple Line is a potential source of job creation and economic development, Lee replied: “Credit to the business communities in Baltimore and this region – they’ve made a very spirited assault on the [governor-elect] begging that these two lines be kept intact.” Lee is also chairman of the board of the Silver Spring-based Lee Development Group; his cousin, Lee Development Group President Bruce Lee, was among the signers of a recent letter to Hogan arguing in favor of going ahead with construction of the Purple Line.

But Blair Lee added: “It’s a very expensive accommodation they’re asking Gov. Hogan to make to these three jurisdictions that are not going to support him four years from now.”

Another member of the panel, Matthew Palmer – senior vice president of government affairs of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce – took a more benevolent view of Hogan’s future dealings with Montgomery and the other two jurisdictions.

Noting that Brown’s loss this year was due in large measure to a depressed turnout of Democratic voters in these areas, Palmer said: “I don’t know that is going to happen again in four years. I wouldn’t go as far as Blair and say [Hogan] is going to play completely to his base…I don’t believe he can do that.”

But Palmer was also skeptical about prospects of Hogan giving a green light to go ahead with the Purple Line and the Red Line. “I don’t see a reason why the Hogan administration would be moving them forward extremely quickly, as the last administration has done. I think they’re going to take a very, very hard look at them.” He suggested that, as a price for moving forward on the projects, the new administration might seek new authority “to allow jurisdictions to tax themselves to make these lines work.”

Hogan has said little publicly about either the Purple Line or Red Line since his election on Nov. 4, with a spokeswoman this week saying that the incoming governor plans “to study the merits of both transportation projects…very closely before making any decisions.”

The other member of today’s panel, columnist Josh Kurtz of the Center Maryland political website, noted that two Democratic proponents of the Purple Line – Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Brown – had lost to Republican opponents in gubernatorial elections in 2002 and last year, respectively.

“For me, it’s all political,” Kurtz said in concurring with Lee’s view of the motivations behind the future of the mass transit projects. “But for two inept campaigns who were expected to win and lost, the Purple Line might be close to being done by now.”