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Ex-Md. governor criticized for pushing for larger ships at the Port of Baltimore

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden has promised federal aid to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. It's something former governor of Maryland Larry Hogan called on Congress to pass soon after a massive cargo ship crashed into it nearly two weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY HOGAN: Well, I'm going to push them as hard as I can. I've already called a couple of Republican Senate leaders, and I already started working them.

FADEL: That's him speaking to Fox News during his current campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. When he was governor, Hogan had a central role in expanding the Port of Baltimore, which got Lucy Dean Stockton interested in reviewing his record of welcoming ever-larger cargo vessels. She's a reporter with the investigative news outlet The Lever.

LUCY DEAN STOCKTON: These ships have gotten so much bigger. There was actually a race among East Coast cities in a push to attract these new megaships and the economic activity they could bring. Congress allocated billions to deepen the ports, and many cities made different infrastructural investments, like deeper channels, wider turning radiuses, stronger docks and higher cranes. Baltimore, like other cities, joined in on the race, and it paid off. They're a top port for importing cars and agricultural machinery and exporting coal. And by 2017, when Hogan was in office, they were just one of four East Coast ports that could handle these megaships.

FADEL: So on the face of it, this seems like a good thing for Baltimore.

DEAN STOCKTON: Definitely. I think it was a major driver of economic activity, and Hogan is a really - he was a pro-business leader and politician for a long time. During his two terms in office, he actually spearheaded and championed these megaships coming to Baltimore. He made many different kinds of investments in the port. And we focused in our reporting on a 2018 proposal that he led - and that his port administration led - to accommodate the megaships, wherein they actually promised that these megaships could reduce the occurrences of crashes, fatalities and injuries among transportation users.

FADEL: And so then what was the issue? I mean, he - attracting these megaships, but there were warnings about security and safety for the bridge?

DEAN STOCKTON: Definitely. So I think it's important to note that while he was making all these other infrastructural investments, like fortifying the wharves and widening the space needed for these boats, he wasn't fortifying the bridges. And that's important because other cities were. It was a major oversight.

FADEL: We reached out to Hogan's office to find out what steps he had taken. His team said he'd supported updating the pier protection of the bridge, but according to records from the Maryland Department of Transportation, that work was not projected to begin until 2025. Now, this wasn't the first time that protectors of this bridge had been hit. There was another accident in 1980 involving a smaller ship. A state engineer warned then that the bridge couldn't withstand a larger collision. More recently, others have sounded the alarm about the dangers posed by larger vessels transiting any port city.

DEAN STOCKTON: And then there were also warnings from the International Transport Forum, which recommended bridge updates in busy port areas, and even explicitly warned cities against using public money to retrofit ports. But there was also the insurance giant, Allianz, which covers many of these megaships, and they raised major concerns about how ship size growth could affect the ports where they'd be docking.

FADEL: So insurance companies, maritime safety experts all warned that the bridge needed to be fortified, but those steps weren't taken. What did Hogan say about this when you reached out to his office?

DEAN STOCKTON: Hogan directed us to a statement sort of offering condolences about the incident but didn't comment explicitly in our requests for comment. I do think, though, that this is indicative of his tenure as governor. For a long time, his agenda and his slogan was, quote, "open for business," that Maryland was open for business. And now in his Senate campaign, his slogan is let's get back to work. I think he really has prioritized private interests again and again.

FADEL: Lucy Dean Stockton is a reporter for the investigative news outlet The Lever. Thank you so much, Lucy.

DEAN STOCKTON: Thank you so much for having me, Leila.

FADEL: And we'd like to note that we requested our own interview with former Governor Larry Hogan. He declined, but our invitation is a standing one. His office did give us this statement. Quote, "as federal and state officials have reported, the bridge was regularly inspected and met all federal safety guidelines," unquote.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENE SIKORA'S "A SONG FOR MARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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