Election provides mixed news for transit projects
This week's election provided mixed news for supporters of expansion of Maryland's transit system -- positive at the local level but foreboding on the national scene.
The big local story was Gov. Martin O'Malley defeat of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a contest that pitted two very different views of public transit. Ehrlich prmoised to scuttle Baltimore's Red Line and the Washington suburban Purple Line as light rail projects if elected. His stance in favor of a bus alternative was a turn-off to influential players in Montgomery and Prince Georges' counties -- as reflected in the Greater Washington Board of Trade's endorsement of O'Malley. His numbers in the Washington suburbs would have been anemic anyway, but his stance on the Purple Line deepened his problems.
Ehrlich's Red Line position might have won him a few stray votes in Canton, but there are no signs it helped him much in the Baltimore area.
The election results ensure that the plug will not be pulled on the two projects and that O'Malley's pro-transit spending priorities will not be reversed. But the national results could complicate efforts to finance the project.
Among the casualties of the Repiblican sweep was Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, a powerful committee chairman with jurisdiction over transportation. With him gone, the House loses one of its most fervent advocates of transit investment.
Traditionally, the parties manage to put theiir differences behind them when it comes to pasiing the six-year transportation reauthorization bill, which the Democrats didn't get around to when they controlled the House. It remains to be seen whether the new, more ideological Republican majority has much appetite for infrastructure spending. Even if they do, they can be expected to show the GOP''s traditional emphasis on roads over transit, which is heavily identified with cities and lower-income users. It's doubtful that federal formulas will change in a way that benefits transit.
So the best Maryland can hope for really is that the current formulas remain unchanged until the federal government can rule on its Red Line and Purple Line applications. If Maryland gets the green light, that would mean it would have to come up with its 50 percent share, which could exceed $1 billion if both projects were approved.
With the state budget still in woeful shape and no consensus in favor of higher transportation revenues, Maryland could need a Harry Potter to conjure up a financing plan. That decision could be a ways down the road, however, and until then the projects can continue the engineering process that Ehrlich would probably have defunded. By 2013, who knows what the economic and political conditions will be?