By Barry Rascovar
Leave it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to make a positive, pro-active announcement and then gum up the works with snide, partisan remarks and a political snub that won’t be forgotten.
Here’s the good news: Hogan reversed course on what to do about the narrow, aging and dangerous Harry W. Nice Memorial Potomac River Bridge in Southern Maryland. He unveiled a $765 million plan to erect a new, wider and safer bridge nearby in just six years.
Hip, hip, hooray!
Here’s the bad news: Republican Hogan refuses to work with Democrats on this important construction project. He froze out Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton of Charles County from the announcement ceremony in a political snub that could come back to haunt him.
He also continued to rant about a transportation planning law enacted by Democrats over Hogan’s veto that the governor inaccurately describes as potentially destructive to road and bridge projects.
To top it off, Hogan railed against a bill Middleton pushed through the General Assembly last session calling for the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside $75 million a year over the next 10 years to pay for the replacement bridge.
Middleton’s pay-as-you-go approach met with fierce opposition from Hogan and his transportation minions. The bill, SB 907, passed anyway. Then Hogan vetoed the bill, though Middleton and his offended colleagues could override that veto a few months from now – unless Hogan comes to the bargaining table.
Clearly, Hogan doesn’t like to cooperate with those nasty Democrats. He certainly doesn’t like sharing credit at good-news announcements.
Is it any wonder Hogan has been unable to move his priority bills through the Democratic-dominated legislature?
He continues to float the bogus notion he is eager to compromise with Democrats. What he really wants is total agreement on his proposals. That’s Hogan’s version of compromise.
Middleton’s replacement-bridge bill was aimed at getting Hogan to negotiate with lawmakers over how to erect a safer Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland. The highly-respected senator has been trying for 15 years to replace the 76-year-old, two-lane bridge.
Hogan’s transportation team, though, opposed that plan and backed a less-costly, $150 million patch-up of the decking of the Nice Bridge – easily the state’s most terrifying water crossing. Middleton says the administration argued that not enough people use the Nice Bridge to justify the $1 billion price tag of a replacement structure.
Suddenly, though, Hogan has done a flip-flop and essentially conceded that Middleton has been right all along: a new, safer crossing is needed.
Yet the administration continues to twist the truth.
The governor’s spokesperson made the ludicrous statement Middleton wasn’t invited to the announcement ceremony because he had nothing to do with making the project a reality.
What may have changed the governor’s mind was news that a slowly recovering economy has led to far more car and truck traffic on Maryland’s toll roads and bridges, resulting in a $62 million surplus over the past year. The surplus will be used to help pay for the replacement bridge.
If this trend persists the state could save a ton of money on the new bridge, reducing the size of bond offerings. That, in turn, would free up millions for other state transportation priorities.
Friend or foe?
The situation might brighten even more if Hogan sat down with Middleton to find a middle ground on the two financing approaches. They are not that far apart.
For a governor who has seen his relationship with the legislature deteriorate, it might make sense.
Middleton, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is a powerful figure. He could be an important ally for the governor if Hogan wanted to build a partnership. Or he could be a thorn in the governor’s side. The choice is Hogan’s.
Last week’s bridge announcement won plaudits, as it should. A replacement is overdue. The governor found a way to slice 25% off earlier cost projections by relocating the planned structure 100 feet to the north over a deeper river channel.
Politically, Hogan’s new bridge plan will help him ramp up support in Southern Maryland as his reelection campaign ramps up late next year.
But the governor still needs to improve his batting average in the General Assembly before he goes before Maryland voters.
Perhaps he should take a cue from what he said following Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8 when he advised Marylanders, “Everyone ought to take a deep breath” and give the new administration a chance.
Could this be the time for Hogan “to take a deep breath” and give bipartisanship a chance? It might lead to a compromise on paying for a new Potomac River crossing and open a channel for cooperation in the State House.