Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's proposals to widen the state's three most congested highways and fund Metro could undercut Democrats' strategy of painting him as a small-minded leader with few significant accomplishments when they try to oust him in next year's election, analysts say.
The Republican governor's reelection prospects already looked strong before his two transportation initiatives this month. His approval ratings have been high, and no clear favorite has emerged from a large pool of Democratic challengers.
Now, Hogan has helped himself further with high-profile plans to address what voters in the Washington suburbs often rank as their top concern: traffic congestion.
"He has a bunch of little victories, and maybe this is the cherry on top for him," said Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science at Goucher College.
On Thursday, Hogan announced a $9 billion project to add four toll lanes apiece to Maryland's half of the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. He said that the plan wouldn't cost taxpayers any money, partly because the Beltway and I-270 projects would be developed by private companies in a public-private partnership.
Ten days earlier, Hogan tried to break a regional deadlock over Metro funding by offering to increase Maryland's contribution to the transit agency by $500 million over four years if Virginia, the District and the federal government do the same.
Both initiatives face significant obstacles. On the highways plan, Democrats, environmentalists and other critics want more transit options and say too many homes and businesses would have to be razed to make room for the widening. They also question how Hogan would pay for the new lanes, and they oppose plans for tolls or say they would be too high.
The Metro funding proposal drew complaints that it does not provide the long-term, dedicated revenue source that the transit agency says it needs. The plan also insists on an increased federal contribution, which is widely seen as unlikely to win passage from the Republican-controlled Congress.
But there is broad agreement that both Hogan plans boost his bid for a second term. One high-ranking Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said of the roads proposal, "I think this is a huge political winner for him, and he was going to be tough to beat before."
In his first 2 1/ 2 years in office, Hogan has often seemed to specialize in popular but minor steps such as lowering tolls, shifting the school year's start until after Labor Day and pushing to fix the air conditioning in Baltimore County schools.
Critics joke that Hogan "doesn't sweat the big stuff." They contrast his record with that of his predecessor, Martin O'Malley (D), whose legacy includes approval of same-sex marriage, expansion of legalized gambling, improving benefits for immigrants and raising taxes to fund transportation.
Hogan's office points to successes such as avoiding tax increases, increased education funding and job growth.
And now there is nothing small about Hogan's transportation plans.
The roads project "gives him a big idea that he can run on and is politically very smart in a number of ways," said David Lublin, a government professor at American University and editor of Seventh State, a blog about Maryland politics. Lublin noted that both initiatives primarily help Maryland's vote-rich Washington suburbs, even though they didn't back Hogan when he won the 2014 election. That helps inoculate Hogan against charges that his policies have unduly favored rural and outer suburban counties where he got most of his support.
"He makes it very hard for a Democrat to make a case in the Washington suburbs for why he's failed or been inattentive to the area," Lublin said.
The Metro funding proposal, together with his support for the light-rail Purple Line linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties, also helps neutralize the accusation that Hogan is anti-transit.
He campaigned in 2014 in favor of shifting funds from transit to roads and bridges. As recently as a regional summit on Aug. 28 with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Hogan was saying that Maryland couldn't afford to give Metro any additional money beyond its current level of contributions.
But he did an about-face Sept. 11, when he made the offer of $500 million if it were matched by each of the other jurisdictions that support Metro.
It was a slick act of political jujitsu, in which Hogan went from being the holdout who was refusing to help Metro to the guy casting himself as the transit system's potential savior.
Hogan "really has got nothing to lose here," said Doug Duncan, a Democrat and former three-term Montgomery County executive. "If the others don't match the money, he can blame them, and it's not his fault. He'll be portrayed as a real defender and fighter for Metro now."
Several Democrats competing for their party's nomination to challenge Hogan said he has not provided enough information about his highways plan, such as how he would pay for it or whether there are any alternatives.
"Flashy headline, but the devil is in the missing details," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said. "How many decades does this take?"
Former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous said Hogan's plan "is just another election year
half-measure from Larry Hogan that fails to move Maryland into 21st-century transit."
Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said Marylanders should not have to pay tolls to widen roads because they are already paying higher gasoline taxes, which were raised in 2013.
Baker reiterated his criticism that Hogan "has played small ball." Despite the two transportation initiatives, he said, the governor "has not pushed big issues and then gone out and actually solved them."
The three Democratic candidates, along with state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), also faulted Hogan on Metro for failing to support dedicated funding. But none of them was willing to explicitly support raising taxes to support the transit system. Hogan has flatly ruled out raising state taxes to support Metro, which puts him at odds with Bowser and a report by fiscal experts of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Other declared candidates for the Democratic nomination include Krishanti Vignarajah, a former aide to Michelle Obama; entrepreneur Alec Ross; and lawyer James L. Shea.
Responding to the criticisms on roads, Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said: "This is a very simple question. Either you support the governor's plan, or you support having people continue to wait and waste their time and lives in our current situation."
Mayer also dismissed the Democrats' comments on Metro funding as politically motivated.
Hogan's team sought to portray the governor's actions as nothing more than straightforward good government, aimed at practical solutions, and not influenced by political considerations.
But Russ Schriefer, a Republican political consultant who advises Hogan, noted that "good government is good politics." And he described the highways proposal as evidence of Hogan's boldness.
"It becomes harder for them to make an argument that he doesn't do big things when you're making a proposal that will really transform three of the most major roads in the state for the next 50 years," Schriefer said.