The major Democratic candidates for Maryland governor, clockwise from top left: Valerie Ervin, Ben Jealous, Alec Ross, Krishanti Vignarajah, Richard S. Madaleno Jr., James L. Shea and Rushern L. Baker III. (Staff and handout photos)

Maryland’s next governor will decide whether to add express toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, revive plans for a rapid bus system in the I-270 corridor, or expand MARC commuter rail service across the state.

The Democrats competing for a chance to try to unseat Gov. Larry Hogan (R) say they would expand transit options more than Hogan has, though none specified how they would pay for it beyond reprioritizing state tax revenue.

They disagree on only one major transportation issue: whether they would consider building express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway. They are united in wanting to revive the Red Line light-rail project in Baltimore that Hogan jettisoned as a waste of money. And they say the state must do more to give motorists in Montgomery and Prince George’s County relief from some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

Political observers and even some Democratic leaders say whoever wins the nomination June 26 will have a tough time using transportation as an issue against Hogan, who campaigned on improving roads and has stolen the Democrats’ thunder on two high-profile transit issues. The popular Republican recently broke ground on the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and sealed a deal with the District and Northern Virginia that secured the first-ever permanent funding to rejuvenate the aging Metrorail system.

The governor also has curried favor with motorists by proposing to add four express toll lanes each to the Beltway, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. A study to determine whether that plan is worthwhile, affordable, or even doable won’t be completed until well after the November election.

“He’s pushing all the right buttons on transportation — it’s impressive,” said Doug Duncan, a former Montgomery County executive who briefly sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006. “I think it will be difficult for any Democrat to attack him on transportation support because he’s really delivered a lot of money.”


Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

An April poll by Goucher College that asked if respondents had more confidence in Hogan or Maryland’s Democratic leaders to “handle” transportation and infrastructure issues found that 45 percent favored Hogan, compared with 36 percent for the Democrats.

“His strategy appears to be using traffic relief as a wedge issue for his reelection,” said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based political consultant. “I think it’s a brilliant move.”

Candidates must walk a fine line between calling for better transit in urban areas like Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs and reassuring Democrats in outer suburbs and more rural parts of the state that they also feel their pain on the road.

At the same time, the party’s base — those most likely to turn out in a primary — adamantly favors transit over roads.

All the Democrats say they would restore plans to build the 14-mile light-rail line in Baltimore, which Hogan canceled shortly after taking office, calling it a “wasteful boondoggle.”

Candidate Alec Ross, a tech entrepreneur and former Obama administration official from Baltimore, called the decision politically motivated because the Red Line would have served some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods.

“Black Democrats are not Larry Hogan’s key constituency,” Ross said.

But none of the Democrats have cited a way to pay for the project, last estimated to cost $2.9 billion. The state forfeited $900 million in federal grants allotted to the Red Line when Hogan pulled the plug, and the Trump administration has proposed cutting construction aid for new transit projects.

“Unfortunately, we now have to start from the very beginning and go to our federal partners and ask them to put it back in the queue and make it our number one project in Maryland,” said candidate Rushern L. Baker III, the Prince George’s executive.

Most of the Democrats say Hogan’s plan to add toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270, fund Metro and support other Washington-area transportation projects are based on his quest for reelection.

Hogan campaign spokesman Doug Mayer rejected that idea. He said the governor has prioritized the Purple Line and Metro along with road and bridge repairs statewide because he considers transportation “critical to our local economies and overall quality of life.”

“Politics has nothing to do with it,” Mayer said in an email. “The fact is, the governor is doing a lot for transportation infrastructure in every corner of this state.”

All the Democrats say they would prioritize more money for transit.

“I think in the long term, both for the environment and congestion, we have to start looking at options to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit,” Baker said.

All say they support adding one or two lanes to I-270 — as opposed to the four new lanes that Hogan has proposed — and making those lanes reversible to carry traffic in the peak direction. (Valerie Ervin, who entered the race as a gubernatorial candidate Thursday in place of the late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, has not yet outlined her transportation plans.)

Ross, James L. Shea and Ben Jealous said they wouldn’t add lanes to I-270 without first expanding MARC service in the area and building the Corridor Cities Transitway, a busway planned between the Shady Grove Metro station and upper Montgomery County.

Otherwise, “You’d get the same congestion, just with more cars and more pollution,” said Shea, a lawyer and former chairman of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Hogan postponed funding for the project two years ago.

All but one of the Democrats said they wouldn’t add any lanes to the Beltway, as Hogan has proposed. They said doing so would require demolishing too many homes and other buildings, particularly east of I-270.

Candidate Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a state senator from Montgomery, said he’d consider using tolls as a way to pay to extend Northern Virginia’s HOT lanes over the American Legion Bridge and around the Beltway to I-270. He said he doesn’t believe there’s enough room to add Beltway lanes east of the I-270 spur and would instead ask engineers to focus on how to relieve bottlenecks in that stretch.

One issue will be how to pay to add any capacity, either to roads or transit, particularly as increased use of fuel-efficient vehicles limits gas tax revenue.

“The only way we’ll do any of these significant capacity projects would most likely be with a public-private a partnership or as a tolled facility,” Madaleno said.

Several candidates said they think of transportation broadly as a way to connect jobs to more affordable neighborhoods.

Krishanti Vignarajah, a Gaithersburg resident and former policy director for Michelle Obama, recalled her father relying on buses to reach teaching jobs in Baltimore public schools. She cited a lack of transportation options as the “root cause” of unemployment, poverty and crime.

Vignarajah said she believes toll lanes are “worth looking at” as a way to pay for transit and road expansion but she generally believes they’re too expensive for most drivers. “My underlying principle is we need to make sure that everyone has access to roads and transit,” she said.

Jealous, a former NAACP president who lives in Anne Arundel County, said he’s had family members feel “very isolated” in West Baltimore because they couldn’t get to work via reliable mass transit.

In addition to reviving the Red Line, he said, he’d add a rapid bus system to southern Maryland. He said he’d also expand MARC service, extend Metro lines farther into Maryland and look for ways to make public transportation services, such as MetroAccess, more convenient for the elderly and people with disabilities. He did not say how he would pay for it.

Jealous said the state “probably” needs to add two lanes to I-270. However, he said he’s “not a fan” of charging tolls for express lanes. “Widening I-270 to me,” Jealous said, “is about widening it for everybody.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report, which is the first in a series of stories looking at specific issues in the Maryland governor’s race.