Martin O’Malley Wants Someone Else to Run His Light Rail

The Maryland governor says that it will take a public-private partnership to, after more than a decade, finally get Baltimore’s Red Line built.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley at the opening of a reconstructed MARC Train station. Credit: Maryland’s Office of the Governor

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Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is on the cusp of pulling off something that few American politicians have ever done: Partnering with a private interest to build a major transportation project that isn’t a highway.

Standing at the West Baltimore MARC station yesterday, O’Malley announced $689 million in funding for the Red Line, a long-planned light rail line, and the details of his P3 — that is, his private-public partnership — to build and run it. On the table is basically a public exoskeleton around a privately operated 14.1-mile route running east and west through Baltimore.

O’Malley has floated a P3 approach to the Red Line before, but the details released yesterday describe an unusual hybrid. Stations, tunnels, stormwater systems and other administrative bits would be built using a traditional “design-bid-build” approach, where a public agency hands out work to a private contractor. But “the railcars, operations center and maintenance facility, track, signals, and power, as well as maintenance of those elements” — or, all the equipment needed to run trains — would be the purview of a selected “concessionaire.”

One thing to worry about with P3s is private interests driving up fees, often tolls, to reap a profit. But O’Malley has proposed a different mechanism to solve that: Periodic payments with deductions for poor performance, which, his office said, “will provide strong incentives for the concessionaire to deliver high quality service for the assets under its responsibility.”

The project certainly has its critics. Residents along the east leg of its path, in particular, have complained that the $2.5 billion project will disrupt their lives without doing much to address the many gaps in Baltimore’s transportation network. O’Malley’s P3 announcement, though, hasn’t generated much outrage. That might be due to post-Labor Day sleepiness or Rosh Hashanah, but it might also be because O’Malley has been carefully laying groundwork.

In a coup for the governor, the Federal Transit Administration in March signed off ahead of schedule on the plan’s environmental impact. A month later, O’Malley signed into law the Public-Private Partnership Act, said to make forging such agreements more predictable and more transparent, over objections by some in his own party that the bill stripped the procurement process of valuable protections.

A month after that, O’Malley did something many politicians are loathe to do: He approved a gas tax. The bill allowed O’Malley to claim some $170 million in additional funding for the Red Line, putting him in position to compete for the hard-to-get federal New Starts funds he’ll need to pull the project off.

What’s happening in Maryland is unusual because, beyond toll roads, P3 transportation projects are uncommon in the U.S. They’re far more common in other countries. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association has been advocating for decades for exactly the sort of legislation that O’Malley pushed through, but hasn’t had much luck.

William Reinhardt, editor of the Public Works Financing newsletter, wrote in 2011 that at best he expected to see two to four P3 transportation projects take place in a year. You hear about Denver’s Eagle commuter rail, but there aren’t many like it. For those politicians in executive posts, the appeal of P3s is that they can keep costs down and move quickly — in part by hiring off public payroll. “Governors generally are more often supportive of the P3 concept than legislators,” Reinhardt wrote, “so a governor’s political leadership is often the key to gaining passage of enabling laws.”

The wind is blowing in O’Malley’s direction on the Red Line. If the same pace holds, the project is targeted to be up and running around 2020, with construction beginning in 2015. O’Malley would very much like to see that happen, possibly because it seems more and more that he’d very much like to be president. Last month, he told reporters at a meeting of the National Governors Association that, “by the end of this year I think we’re on course to have a body of work that lays the framework for a candidacy in 2016.”

The Red Line has been in the works since around 2000. If O’Malley runs, the former Baltimore mayor will likely run as an urbanist. And he’ll be running at a time when not only is the country becoming more city-centric, but when its critical infrastructure is crumbling with no real plan to fix it. But O’Malley could to point to an example of how he managed to get a meaty and complicated transportation project off the ground by weaving together the resources of cities, a state, the federal government and private contractors.

He’ll be able to say that he can get big projects funded when few others like him have — at least, not anyone likely to be on the Democratic ballot.

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Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationtransportation spendinglight railshared citytrainsbaltimorepublic-private partnerships

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