Maryland governor Larry Hogan may cancel the Purple Line because he says it’s too expensive, but given his sudden announcement last week of lower highway tolls, that’s clearly just an excuse. The real obstacle to building the light rail line is the pressure of a few well-placed opponents, chief among them the Columbia Country Club.
Back when the Purple Line was a new idea, I had the chance to shake hands with then-governor Parris Glendening. I grabbed the opportunity to say a few words about the project. Glendening’s answer? “Get the country club to take two strokes off your score if you hit a trolley car, and you’ve solved the whole problem.”
Almost 20 years have gone by since then, and the situation has not changed.
If the Purple Line dies, cost will be the excuse rather than the real reason. The project’s current financing plan calls for only $288 million in state outlays during construction. This is a very modest amount of money for a major transportation facility — the price of two highway interchanges. The savings that Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has identified will make the number even smaller.
Over the six years of construction, Maryland will spend less on the Purple Line than on last week’s toll cuts. The toll cuts, targeted to benefit big trucking companies and owners of beach houses, will cost $54 million a year.
Everything else in the light rail construction budget is money that the state loses if it doesn’t go ahead. $1.6 billion comes from the federal government, $900 million as a grant and $700 million as a low-interest loan under the TIFIA program. The state has already spent more than $200 million, and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties will kick in at least that much.
The loan, of course, will have to be paid back after the trains start to run. At an interest rate of 2.73% — what Fairfax pays on money it borrowed last December for the Silver Line — the payments will be $36 million a year for 30 years. If the Purple Line’s private partner gets $12 million a year in profit and return of capital — a generous return on an initial investment of $81 million — the total will be $48 million. This is still less than the ongoing cost of the toll cut giveaway.
So what would make Governor Larry Hogan, whose slogan is “Maryland is open for business,” think of canceling a project that business badly wants? It is certainly not the merits of the arguments against it, which have been thoroughly debunked.
In politics, wealth and influence can be more persuasive than facts and logic. Columbia Country Club, whose golf course lies on both sides of the railroad right of way the Purple Line will follow, has long been a favored haunt of Washington power brokers. The club only reluctantly abandoned its 25-year struggle against light rail in 2013, and after last year’s election a team of lobbyists was assembled from its membership to renew the fight.
In January, Governor Hogan came to Bethesda for a fundraiser where club members raised $47,000 for his political committee. Three top members of his staff later sat down with the club’s golfer-lobbyists to hear their objections. Neither the governor nor his staff have been willing to meet with Purple Line supporters, and — with a decision just days away — the governor has not even bothered to take a look at the Purple Line’s route.
Make no mistake about what is happening. No one here is balancing competing public policy priorities. Either Governor Hogan already understands the Purple Line’s vast economic benefits, or he doesn’t care enough to find out. The decision he makes next week will be a straight-up choice between insider influence and the public good.
Correction: An earlier version of this post had a typo that said $700 billion as a a low-interest loan under the TIFIA program, rather than $700 million. We’ve fixed it.