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Baltimore Business Journal - In Asia, Larry Hogan will be a rare Republican to give trains a chance

Larry Hogan is taking a bold, adventurous trip that could be huge for the future of Maryland business.
I’m not talking about Asia — although that’s part of it. I’m talking about a train ride.

Yes, Hogan, a Republican governor, is going to get on a train. A maglev train, to be specific. It’s part of his 12-day trip through Asia that began May 26.

Hogan will ride a maglev train ride in southern Japan, joined by state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, Northeast Maglev CEO Wayne Rogers and Northeast Maglev Vice Chairman Jeffrey Hirschberg. Although the maglev ride was little more than a footnote in the details offered about Hogan’s Asian trip, it’s a big deal.

Maglev trains are propelled along their tracks with an electromagnetic pull. You might recall there have been a few moments of buzz around maglev trains in recent years as proposals have been floated to build lines across the United States, including one between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Backers say a maglev line would reduce the rail commute between the two cities from about an hour to 15 minutes.

Northeast Maglev — the partnership that includes two of Hogan’s travel buddies — is a group of well connected investors who want to make the train line a reality. They have a promise of $5 billion in support from the Japanese government to build what is expected to be a $10 billion project.

How much Maryland is willing to contribute to a maglev line — or even take it seriously — could depend in part on how much Hogan enjoys that train ride.

Regardless of the maglev dream, though, it’s telling that Hogan is even publicizing his maglev ride. Republicans in recent years have been about as likely to board a train as they’ve been to walk into Planned Parenthood for a photo op.

Just four years ago, a wave of Republican governors took office and shut down long-planned train projects across the country, including high-speed rail initiatives in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker shunned $2.4 billion and $810 million, respectively, in federal money that would have covered the entire cost of new high-speed rail systems — the types of projects that had been favored by Republicans just a few years earlier.

Since then, Republicans have made a concerted effort to oppose train projects of all kinds, whether it’s upgrades to Amtrak’s Northeast corridor(the kind of infrastructure that might have prevented the recent derailment in Philadelphia) or a streetcar project in Milwaukee.

Hogan’s flirtation with maglev suggests a break with Republicans on universal opposition to trains. Whether it’s due to the political reality of governing in Democratic-dominated Maryland or acquiescence to high-powered investors matters not.

In the coming weeks, Hogan’s administration will have to make major decisions on a couple of rail projects that are much closer to fruition than a maglev line. Hogan and Rahn for months have been weighing whether to proceed with the Red and Purple light rail lines in Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs. Both projects had political support before Hogan took office and both continue to carry the support of key business leaders.

In another state, or perhaps even in another year, those decisions already would have been made. Once the Republican governor took office, all planned train projects — regardless of how much money already had been invested in them — would have come to a screeching halt.

But while Hogan might not have emerged as the prince of bipartisanship he cast himself as during the opening days of his administration, he has proven to be a different species of Republican governor: one who is willing to be seen on a train.

It’s a small gesture, but it signals that Hogan will judge train projects on whether they’re best for business in Maryland rather than whether they fit into the partisan politics of the moment.

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