The Washington suburbs have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, yet the two candidates for Maryland governor rarely mention how they would provide relief.
Beyond debating whether to build a light-rail Purple Line through Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) and Anne Arundel County businessman Larry Hogan (R) have said little about how they would help Marylanders get to work and home on time. Well-known choke points include an aging Metrorail system in need of expansion and repair, the American Legion Bridge on the Capital Beltway and stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 270.
“I’d have thought that gridlock on the Beltway or on I-270 would be a major campaign issue for gubernatorial candidates who want to win votes in suburban Maryland,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “But I haven’t seen Anthony Brown or the Larry Hogan campaign talk with any vigor about transportation issues.”
In addition to choosing a new governor Nov. 4, Maryland voters will decide whether to amend the state Constitution to make it more difficult to divert transportation revenue to pay for non-transportation needs. The ballot measure is referred to as Question 1 or the “lockbox” proposal. Brown and Hogan both say they support it.
They do not agree on much else.
Brown has said he would invest in transit projects to create jobs and spur economic growth. Those projects include the $2.45 billion Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, a $2.9 billion light-rail Red Line in Baltimore, and a busway in the I-270 corridor.
Brown said that the three transit projects are his “big billion-dollar” priorities and that he would let county and city officials prioritize their state-funded road projects. He said he also would ensure that Maryland pays its share of the cost of Metro’s plans to ease subway congestion by using only eight-car trains during peak periods.
“Rest assured, the Purple Line is not going to just run through our neighborhoods,” Brown said at a recent rally to support the project. “It’s going to revitalize our communities.”
Brown called the state gas tax increase implemented under Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) a “tough decision” that provided “resources to make investments.” He also said he would reconsider the relatively high toll rates on the Intercounty Connector (ICC).
Hogan has said the state cannot afford to build the light-rail lines, which would have a combined cost of more than $5 billion, but should invest more in roads. He declined to be interviewed for this report, but spokeswoman Hannah Marr said in an e-mail that if elected, Hogan would focus on improvements to I-270 and the Beltway.
“Currently, over 50 percent of transportation funding is spent on mass transit,” Marr wrote, “while a vast majority of Marylanders use roads and highways to meet their transportation needs.”
Marr said Hogan would work to “scale back” the state gas tax and reduce rush-hour tolls on the ICC.
Ben Ross, a member of the Action Committee for Transit, said he would like to hear both candidates talk more about how the state would help pay for additional eight-car Metro trains and to expand the MARC commuter rail service between Washington and Frederick.
“The real issue is we’ve been overinvesting in roads and underinvesting in transit for 100 years,” Ross said. “We have to catch up.”
One reason the candidates are not talking much about transportation is that state polls show voters most concerned about taxes, jobs and the economy, political observers say. And while talking about traffic congestion usually scores high with voters in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, analysts say doing so also could backfire for either candidate.
For Brown, touting new road projects would draw attention to the way he would be likely to fund them — with revenue from the unpopular gas tax increase. And if he takes credit for another O’Malley initiative, the $2.5 billion ICC, he risks reminding voters of the high tolls on the road and a lingering perception that it often feels relatively empty.
“I think the Brown people are concerned about reactions to the gas tax increase,” said Keith Haller, a Bethesda pollster and political analyst.
Hogan, who has made criticism of tax increases under O’Malley a cornerstone of his campaign, has a different problem: It is difficult to offer an ambitious transportation plan while also pledging to scale back the gas tax that would help fund it.
“I think Hogan would rather not have anything that takes him off the subject of the economy,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “I think he recognizes that as a Republican running in Maryland, he’s got to stay as on-message as possible.”
One issue on which both candidates agree is a referendum on a proposal to prohibit using transportation revenue to balance the general budget — unless the governor declared a fiscal emergency and at least three-fifths of both the state House and Senate approved it.
Since 1984, about $619 million has been transferred from Maryland’s transportation trust fund to the state’s general fund, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation. About $621 million has been transferred back in that time. However, a group pushing for the amendment said that if state money diverted from local transportation projects is taken into account, more than $1 billion has been transferred over the past decade, with only $600 million being repaid.
“Frankly, the transportation trust fund lacks trust,” said Anderson, of AAA. “It’s become the state cookie jar and an easy way for politicians to balance the budget.”
Critics of the lockbox proposal say the restriction would reduce governors’ flexibility to limit cuts in other areas during tight economic times.
Regardless of whether transportation funding is made secure, some say, the two gubernatorial hopefuls should spend more time discussing how that money should be spent.
“If this region is going to grow and prosper, we need more and better transportation,” said former Montgomery executive Doug Duncan (D), who ran for governor in 2006. “Campaigns are a perfect way to get a mandate from the voters on how to do it. But that’s not the mood of the candidates this year.”