Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday signaled a reluctance to accept the Purple Line rail project with its current cost estimates, adding that he expects to make a decision “in the next month sometime” about whether to move forward with the long-planned transit program.
Hogan said the existing price tag of $153 million per mile for the project, which would link New Carrollton with Bethesda, is “not acceptable.”
“Two miles of that would fund our entire school construction for the entire state,” Hogan (R) said. Asked whether he has an acceptable cost in mind, Hogan said, “It would have to be dramatically lower than that.”
Aides to the governor insisted that he has not yet made a decision.
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the state’s Transportation Department, said the agency informed the four teams of private companies bidding on the project Friday evening that there would be no decision this month, as had been expected. She said the bidders were not given another date.
Hogan is scheduled to meet with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) on Thursday to hear their final pleas in favor of the project, which they and other boosters say would improve economic development and connect suburbs that are not easily linked by the Metro transit system.
Critics of the 16-mile light-rail project say, among other things, that the economic effect has been overstated, and that state dollars allocated would be better spent on roads and bridges.
The meeting with Baker and Leggett was arranged by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who said Thursday that Hogan told him a decision is likely within two weeks.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said last week that he believes the state could build the light-rail line for about 10 percent less than the previous estimate of $2.45 billion.
But Hogan did not indicate whether that reduction in cost was sufficient.
During a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Hogan also discussed his recent tussle with Democrats over the state budget, in which the two sides disagreed over funding for education, public employee pensions and raises. He said negotiations were difficult because many lawmakers wanted business as usual and pushed their decisions to the last few days.
“It’s challenging to change the mind-sets of folks that believe very strongly in what they’re talking about,” said Hogan, who won an upset victory over then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) to succeed former governor Martin O’Malley (D). “They think what they’ve been doing is right, and they don’t want to change.”
Hogan gave no indication that he would change course next year. Instead, he suggested that he will remain steadfast in implementing the policies he envisioned for Maryland’s government, which largely focus on spending restraint, economic growth and accountability.
“We’re going to keep pushing the same message, and hopefully we can sink it in to a few more people,” he said. “I was elected by people who want a change of direction, so we’re fighting to push the needle on some things, particularly on fiscal issues and getting our economy on track.”
Hogan offered a limited concession to Democrats on Thursday by announcing that he would not veto a bill requiring the state to fully fund a supplement to the state’s costliest school systems, starting next fiscal year. But he also decided to withhold half of the supplemental funding for those systems this fiscal year, despite the wishes of Democratic lawmakers and officials across the state.
At least part of the withheld money will go toward replenishing public employee pensions, which the administration has named as one of its top priorities.
Despite his decision over the schools funding, Hogan said pensions do not take precedence over education.
“Our number one priority is education,” he said. “It’s the only place where we increased spending this year. . . . Schools [are] our priority, but we also don’t want to have people robbing the pension. We don’t want to go bankrupt and not live up to the commitments that we made to teachers and state police and retirees.”
He also discussed his relationship with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow blue-state Republican whom Hogan has described as a political mentor. He said Christie, who helped manage and coordinate the response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, called him to offer advice when riots broke out in Baltimore last month.
“He said, ‘This is a crisis that’s really going to need your leadership,’ ” Hogan said. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to step up to the challenge and be ready, and I think you’re the right man for the job.’ And he said, ‘Let the people know how much you care,’ and that’s what I did.”
The two governors canceled a planned Christie fundraiser in Maryland because of the unrest in Baltimore. Hogan said they have not decided whether to reschedule the event for Christie, a likely presidential contender.
Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.