Frank DeFilippo: Hogan Created His Own Transportation Mess by Cutting Tolls that Provide Funding

Traffic on the American Legion Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The road to the White House is not paved with toll lanes or public-private partnerships.

In fact, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s (R) transportation and environmental plans appear to be a tangle of contradictions and misbegotten directions. But for the moment, let’s put aside his phantasmagorical political whimsies. For all we, or he, even know, they’re strictly back-of-the-brain illusions. Or not.

In a way, Hogan owns this mess. So right up front, his transportation experts have testified that private financing is necessary for toll lanes he wants to build along I-270 and I-495 because the state lacks the money to fund them. And don’t forget the American Legion Bridge, the bow on the gift-package, a neat bit of handicraft that makes one part of the deal undoable without the other.

Frank A. DeFilippo

And whose fault is that? To be a crowd-pleaser, Hogan, early on, cut tolls along Maryland’s pay-for-use bridges, tunnels and roadways, the traditional method of financing the transportation money pool, thus depriving the state’s unified transportation fund of revenue to underwrite the sale of bonds.

The back-of-the-envelope formula at the bond market is that every $1 in the transportation fund will leverage $10 in bonding money to finance transportation projects. At one point, for example, Hogan cut tolls and EZ-Pass fees by $270 million over five years. You do the math.

Going into the bond market with that kind of cash in hand, historically low interest rates and a AAA bond rating would have been a cash cow for Hogan’s transportation projects.

So, by reducing tolls as part of his gesture politics, Hogan himself greatly inhibited Maryland’s ability to finance its publicly-owned transportation projects.

On the amusing side of the venture, transportation officials have scheduled public hearings on the express lanes to hear testimony on a range of tolls that might be acceptable to users who’re in a hurry, or who crave a speed-buzz.

As if tolls are at the state’s command once the investors take over. Besides, the Maryland Transportation Authority has already approved a toll structure for the projects, not that the schedule can’t be amended.

To provide transportation needs, the state must first satisfy federal environmental concerns. This requires an air pollution analysis.

Knowing this as a condition, officials from Hogan’s Department of the Environment and the Motor Vehicles Administration tried fast-tracking their plan to reduce the number, ages and models of vehicles that are required to undergo regular emissions testing under the VEIP program. That was in itself the result of a federal order for Maryland to clean up its act and its air, among the dirtiest in the nation — another crowd-pleaser that would reduce fees, this one $14 every two years. (Remember Hogan’s early pledge and subsequent boast that he reduced more than 155 fees?)

But the General Assembly got wind of the plan and blocked the effort in its tire-tracks, or so it thought. House Bill 44, the law as of July 1, requires a review and a report to the legislature before any action that can reduce the VEIP program.

But the MDE and MVA officials appear hell-bent on enforcing their plan despite the will of the Assembly and a statewide network of environmentalists as well as federal regulators. Complaints from lawmakers continue, even as their slow-down law took effect, over the future of VEIP as part of Maryland’s program to decontaminate the air as we continue to gag on our own toxins.

It is estimated that more than 100,000 vehicles leave the Baltimore area every workday for jobs in the Washington region, leaving poisonous clouds along the round-trip route that is hazardous to our health.

To wit: A recent academic study, reported by Maryland Matters Founding Editor Josh Kurtz, concluded that auto emissions contribute significantly to premature deaths in Maryland.

Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, researchers from Harvard and the University of North Carolina found that in 2016, toxic emissions from exhausts caused an estimated 7,100 premature deaths in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, including 664 in Maryland.

According to Kurtz’s story, “The study is being used to urge state governments to cooperate regionally on working to reduce vehicle emissions and to invest more in clean air policies.”

It’s not necessary to be a tree-hugger, or to live like a woodchuck as Henry David Thoreau did, to discern that adding more cars to the region will increase pollution and exacerbate climate change.

More recently, Hogan’s roadbuilding plan suffered a major, originally viewed as perhaps lethal, setback. A regional panel on transportation, representing Maryland, Virginia and the District, voted to remove the proposal from the federally-required air pollution review.

Hogan is attempting to muscle a second vote to re-set the federal analysis, and at least two subdivisions, Prince George’s and Frederick Counties, have signaled their inclinations to reverse their votes and reprise the study, according to reports.

Deputy Transportation Secretary R. Earl Lewis Jr. wrote in a letter to planning officials that funds for 15 local transportation projects would have to be cut to provide money for replacement of the American Legion Bridge because state funds are not available, a threat no doubt. Hogan has requested a second vote on July 21, hoping that opponents will change their minds and elbow-grabbing will switch their votes.

That rebuke, seen as a vote of no-confidence in Hogan’s program, is coupled with a passel of local and other objections — neighborhood, cost, PPPs, public transportation advocates, local governments, NIMBYS and finally the opposition of the county the road projects would uproot most, Montgomery, the state’s most populous and prosperous, and its executive, Marc Elrich.

Public-private partnership projects (P3s) have a dubious history of their own. Some have worked, others have not. There are cases where PPP financiers have gone bust and defaulted and the affected state was stuck with the bail-out bill. In others, states have had second thoughts and decided against turning public projects over to private owners for the duration of an agreement.

You would have thought Hogan has learned a lesson or two about P3s from the Purple Line experience.

To further complicate matters, financing for the replacement of the American Legion Bridge, which connects Maryland with Virginia, is tied into the toll structure for the express lanes that Hogan wants to add to I-270 and I-495.

Hogan’s plan would turn over the two toll projects to the financing partners for a length of 50 years for which they would collect tolls as repayment and, to be sure, profit. That, citizens, represents a timeline of at least six-and-a-half future governors if each of them is elected to two terms, which is usually the case in Maryland except for an occasional aberration.

Hogan is spending much time, effort and political coin on his cherished P3 projects. If he had anticipated on making the proposed roadway projects part of his legacy, as some speculate, he didn’t need a Ouija Board to tell him it was a questionable choice. But the man does love to spread asphalt.

His proposed transportation package, combined with the lingering resentment of his rejection of the planned Red Line for Baltimore, is on the short list of ideas that alienate so many small constituencies that in the short term they add up to one very large parliament of squeaky wheels.

That said, in the long view, long after the originators were gone, recall the downright hostility toward construction of the Baltimore Beltway, the Jones Falls Expressway and the Capital Beltway through Maryland and Virginia. How would we get from here to there without them?

Yes, but no. That was before we understood that climate change with its scorching weather patterns and melting ice may swallow the planet and that auto exhausts have us wheezing, coughing, eye-watering and, yes, even dying.

Now consider this: If the current pace of environmental devastation continues, the Chesapeake Bay may no longer exist but become part of the ocean that swallowed the land around it as another Atlantis.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.