It was no accident that Gov. Martin O’Malley wore a purple tie to his campaign event in Silver Spring this morning.
The governor met with about two dozen small business owners and other voters at the Tastee Diner in this Montgomery County community to discuss his approach to transit issues -- and to underscore his support for a light rail project known as the Purple Line and the opposition of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to it.
While O’Malley launched no new verbal missiles at his prospective Republican opponent, he used the Purple Line issue to underscore a stark policy difference between the two.
Ehrlich has said he would scrap the O’Malley administration’s roughly $1.6 billion plan to build a light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, saying the state can’t afford it. O’Malley cast that position an an example of a retrun to the past -- a central theme of his re-election campaign.
“For whatever reason, Bob Ehrlich has decided to turn back the clock and take Maryland back,” O'Malley said. “I think it shows a contrast between the way the two of us look at the future.”
But Andy Barth, a spokesman for the Ehrlich campaign, said O'Malley's promises to build the Purple Line and Baltimore's Red Line light rail systems would not move the state forward.
"It would be nice to build every transportation project that comes up, but Bob Ehrlich wants to be honest with the voters and the money to do those projects doesn't exist," Barth said. The spokesman said Ehrlich would consider a rapid bus system, which he said would be much cheaper to build, along the proposed route of the Purple Line.
The governor’s meeting with the business group -- largely made up of pro-O’Malley Purple Line supporters -- was relatvely light on campaign rhetoric and heavy on the detail-oriented policy discussions O’Malley clearly revels in.
The topics reflected the concerns of a group that depends heavily on transit to bring employees to the workplace and customers to their places of business. In addition to the Purple Line, topics included the performance of Washington’s Metro system and the perception that Montgomery County receives less than its fair share of transportation funding.
O’Malley avoided taking the bait on that point.
“When we’re in Baltimore, the allegation is the Washington suburbs get more money for transportation,” he said. The governor said he hopes to see Metro adopt “transparent” performance measures and to make them public through a system similar to his administration’s web-based StateStat program.
On Metro, O’Malley promised to push for more effective leadership of an organization that has been criticized for poor service and a lax approach to safety.
“What Metro doesn’t have is stable leadership at the top right now,” he said.
The governor boasted that his administration has made a real difference in transportation funding -- increasing the share of the pie for transit by 9 percentage points over the Ehrlich years for what O’Malley called “a more balanced transportation system.”
But Barth said the state needs a better balance between new projects and upkeep of current infrastructure.
"We strongly think we should spend money to fix what's broken -- the things that are wrong with Metro and MARC," he said.
O’Malley punted on the politically volatile issue of the gasoline tax, which some transportation infrastructure advocates believe will have to be raised to finance any major new projects. Declining to commit one way or another, he expressed the hope that a recovering economy will lead to a surge in transportation revenue.
The Ehrlich campaign took a far more categorial position. Barth said Ehrlich "has no plans to raise the gas tax for the length of his term."
Silver Spring is considerd to be friendly territory for O’Malley in many ways. It is a transit hub, a role that would only increase if the Purple Line is built. And its downtown has undergone a remarkable renaisance in the last decade -- becoming something of a showpiece for the “smart growth” policies O’Malley has embraced.
Montgomery County is expected to be one of the keys to this year’s expected OMalley-Ehrlich rematch. The Democrat trounced Ehrlich in Maryland’s most populous county in 2006, garnering 63 percent of the vote, and the Republican is hoping to at least hold down O'Malley’s winning percentage there this year.
O’Malley’s pitch resonated with some of the small business owners -- a group Ehrlich has targeted with pledges to cut regulation and hold down taxes. But for Dan Meijer, owner of Danco Electronic Service Specialists in Silver Spring and a Purple Line supporter, the transit issue trumped those appeals.
“It’s just wonderful that we have a Governor O’Malley in office,” Meijer said. “His vision is long-term rather than short-term political gain.”