Monthly Archives: July 2015

Hogan’s 20th Century View of Transit

By Barry Rascovar

July 27, 2015–You’ve got to give Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn credit for one thing: honesty.

He fessed up at a legislative hearing last week that Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. had stripped every last cent from Baltimore’s Red Line rail-transit initiative – as well as most of the state’s previously allocated dollars for the Washington area’s Purple Line – and shifted the entire amount into highway and bridge projects far removed from Maryland’s population centers.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr

All of those hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for rapid rail expansion now “have been committed to roads,” an unapologetic Rahn said.

In place of a $3 billion rapid rail Red Line for Baltimore, Rahn and Hogan say they will make “cost-effective” improvements to the region’s slow-moving, underperforming bus system.

Those will be largely cosmetic fixes. Why? Because Rahn set up a situation where there’s no money to undertake major improvements.

Asphalt and Concrete

Road projects are what Rahn and Hogan care about. Money talks and in this case, Maryland’s governor is stating in a loud and clear voice his overriding objective is to throw more and more dollars into asphalt and concrete highways and bridges.

That’s a 20th century response that fails to address 21st century problems.

Rahn was brought in by Hogan to build roads, not mass transit. Hogan wants to live up to his campaign promise to kill the Red Line and the Purple Line. Rahn delivered.

He not only wiped out the Red Line but he’s come up with a delayed, bare-bones Purple Line option for the Washington suburbs. Hogan’s dramatic slashing of the state’s contribution could lead to the line’s demise for any number of reasons.

That would be fine with the Republican governor, allowing him to pour even more transportation dollars into rural and exurban road-building – where his most fervent supporters live — and once again snub mass transit.

Naturally, all of this is papered over with politically correct rhetoric. Hogan is good at that.

Tunnel Costs

Both the governor and Rahn blame the Red Line’s demise on the high cost of tunneling. Rahn even raised the bogus issue of unexpected obstacles that might increase the price tag for this tunneling.

He dredged up Seattle’s problems with a gigantic piece of tunneling equipment called Big Bertha that got stuck, causing construction delays and overruns.

But an engineer with decades of mass transit experience called this a phony argument.

“It’s apples and oranges,” he said. Baltimore’s tunneling wouldn’t have been anything like Seattle’s. “Many, many other cities have used the same tunneling approach we wanted to use in Baltimore without any problems.”

Now Hogan and Rahn say they are studying “dozens and dozens” of options for Baltimore. But others who have talked to state transportation officials say that’s not so. There was, and there remains, no backup plan.

It’s a political smoke screen.

State Responsibility

Here’s another smoke screen created by Hogan and Rahn. They say they won’t move forward until Baltimore’s regional leaders first present them with new mass transit proposals.

But wait: Isn’t mass transit a state responsibility in Maryland?

This is another delaying tactic and a way to shift responsibility.

From a transportation standpoint, Baltimore is dead in the water, thanks to Hogan.

He has zero blueprints for improving traffic flow and rush hour gridlock in metropolitan Baltimore. He has killed any chance of a new rail transit line during his time in office. He’s also cleverly arranged things so he has zero money for any big mass transit initiative.

Illegal Bus Fare Increase?

On top of that, Hogan and Rahn illegally raised bus fares for Baltimore residents – while simultaneously lowering fares for drivers on state toll roads and bridges. That’s what a legislative analyst and some mass transit advocates maintain.

It’s yet another indication of what matters to Hogan.

Again, Rahn and Hogan don’t seem to care. They simply assert they’re right and the legislature’s analyst and other experts are wrong. The last thing they intend to do is ask the attorney general for a legal ruling.

Politics, Hogan-style, has trumped long-range policy considerations.

Under Hogan, mass transit improvements in Baltimore appear remote in our lifetime. His supporters in rural and suburban Maryland are cheering, which is what counts for this governor.

Disappearing Baltimore

It’s more than ironic that when the governor announced the death of the Red Line, his aides produced a map of the state showing all the rural and suburban road and bridge improvements going forward, thanks to the death of Baltimore’s Red Line.

Lo and behold, Baltimore had disappeared from the state map. It had sunk into the Chesapeake Bay.

This is increasingly what we are seeing from Hogan and Rahn. They couch it in gentler terms so it appears they really do care.

But when it comes to taking action, and putting state money on the table, the only thing that matters to this pair is turning away from urban transit and pouring every last dollar into more and better roadways far from Maryland’s most densely populated areas.

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The Debtor President

By Barry Rascovar

July 20, 2015 – Should we elect as president a candidate who can’t seem to handle his own family’s finances?

Presidential Candidate Martin O'Malley

Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley

Martin O’Malley, presidential contender and former Maryland governor, ran up $339,000 in college education debt for just two of his four children – a staggering amount – on an annual family income that easily topped $300,000.

The O’Malleys lived for eight years in a rent-free mansion where all meals and other household expenses were picked up by the state. They had no mortgage payments to make. They were driven everywhere in state-owned cars by State Troopers. They didn’t have to pay for gas, insurance or car repairs.

Given their minimal living expenses, why couldn’t the former governor and Judge Katie O’Malley contribute more of their hard-earned paychecks (and Martin’s pension as Baltimore mayor) to pay down their daughters’ college loans?

With two more children approaching college age, it’s possible the O’Malleys’ college debt soon could exceed $500,000 or $600,000.

Checkbook Juggling

That doesn’t say much about Martin O’Malley’s ability to balance his family’s checkbook without going heavily into debt – even on a two-income figure that most couples only dream about.

Would you trust a debtor presidential candidate to take on the far more arduous task of handling the federal government’s heavily out-of-balance budget?

What kind of message does this send to voters if Candidate O’Malley had to load himself down with IOUs to make ends meet despite a hefty family income?

To critics, it’s indicative of the kind of state government O’Malley ran, in which he repeatedly sought more and more social spending even though he was driving Maryland deeper and deeper into a sea of red ink.

By the time the Democratic governor left office, his replacement, Republican Larry Hogan Jr., said he was facing a $1.3 billion gap between spending and incoming revenue.

O’Malley was able to paper over the state’s structural deficit most years by raising taxes – dozens of fee and tax hikes. But with a family budget, you can’t turn to that kind of legerdemain.

A Catholic Education

It is entirely understandable that Mr. and Mrs. O’Malley, devout Catholics, want to give their children a solid parochial education. That costs a pretty penny in Baltimore’s private schools.

Plenty of parents make that same choice knowing it will place them behind the financial eight-ball for decades. It is a sacrifice they feel is worth the pain to ensure their kids receive quality schooling that includes religious instruction.

College is a totally different matter.

The O’Malleys let their daughters select high-cost, out-of-state campuses – Georgetown and the College of Charleston. Premier institutions, no doubt.

Georgetown University

Georgetown University

Yet with the O’Malleys still sending two sons to parochial schools and then onto college, didn’t it dawn on them that they were digging a hole of future debt that could prove embarrassing and keep them paying off loans for the rest of their lives?

It was not a smart move financially.

Homeland Heaven

The O’Malleys moved out of the Annapolis governor’s mansion in January and into a four-bedroom, 1928 lake-view house in Baltimore’s toney Homeland community they bought for $549,000. They put down $65,000 in cash and took out a whopping $494,000 mortgage, according to federal filing reports.

That brings the couple’s debt burden – education loans plus mortgage – to $833,000. If their two sons also get to select expensive out-of-state schools, the O’Malley debt load could top $1 million.

As has been pointed out by MarylandReporters’ Len Lazarick, the former governor and District Court judge could have invested a chunk of their salaries in Maryland’s college tuition savings plan to offset higher-education expenses. If the parents had put their foot down and insisted their children attend in-state public universities and colleges, the couple probably could have paid those tuition bill out of their bank accounts.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Maryland’s four-year public institutions by a Maryland governor – even though there are numerous gems to choose from, such as St. Mary’s College, UMBC, the flagship University of Maryland College Park campus, and well-regarded schools in Frostburg, Towson and Salisbury.

Voter Perception

If Martin O’Malley eventually becomes a legitimate contender for the Democratic presidential nomination (at this point he’s being heavily outspent and out-polled by Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders), his questionable handling of his family‘s education finances could become a legitimate bone of contention.

Sure, our children deserve a chance to gain a high-caliber education, even it is requires the parents to dig deep into their pockets. But like everything in life, there are limits to what that sacrifice should entail.

O’Malley hasn’t used good fiscal discipline in dealing with his family’s education expenses. Does this put a damper on voters’ perception of him as a viable presidential contender?

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Baltimore Scapegoat

By Barry Rascovar

July 13, 2015 — It’s a time-worn tactic employed by floundering elected officials: When criticism builds to the point that your career is at risk, find a scapegoat and blame him for all that’s gone wrong.

Anthony Batts, Baltimore’s recently fired police commissioner, became beleaguered Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s scapegoat.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts

Like author Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, Rawlings-Blake screamed, “Off with [his] head” to deflect the growing crescendo of dissatisfaction with her handling of Baltimore’s unprecedented crime and violence.

Here’s what she conveyed in her sudden dismissal of the police commissioner: None of this is my fault; Batts is to blame.

Getting the Boot

So now Batts is out of a job after three years of trying to get a handle on Charm City’s growing epidemic of  shootings, drug-related crime and gang violence. Surely Batts’ removal will make all those gruesome homicides go away.

Fat chance.

History tells us Rawlings-Blake’s ploy is unlikely to work.

Firing Baltimore’s top cop won’t stop the street gangs and the drug trade from firing away at their targets. Communities aren’t any safer today with Batts gone. The killings continue.

As usual, the mayor hesitated too long before taking decisive action. She hired Batts and was reluctant to give up on him. She failed to recognize early on that her police commissioner’s “West Coast offense” against Charm City’s criminals wasn’t working.

This will become a major issue in the 2016 mayoral race that already is heating up.

The Other Option

Rawlings-Blake picked the wrong man for the job. Batts had no familiarity with East Coast urban crime and law enforcement. His experience was mostly in smaller communities in sunny California, not in an aging, densely populated urban core with severe poverty, joblessness and distrust of the police.

Batts’ intentions were on point but his execution was lacking. He never gained the confidence of the men in blue, or of the community and its leaders.

But Rawlings-Blake liked him, in part because of his sterling education credentials.

In hindsight, she should have gone with the logical choice back in 2012: Acting Commissioner Anthony Barksdale, the young, behind-the-scenes deputy police chief who had devised a community policing strategy that brought the city’s homicide rate to record lows and reversed former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” approach that embittered young blacks unfairly targeted and jailed.

Former Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale

Former Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale

But Barksdale was a Coppin State dropout who then joined the police force and worked his way to the top through “street smarts” — unlike the Oberlin-educated mayor, who seems to prefer working with folks with degrees from the “right” colleges.

Barksdale also had another strike against him. He was the protégé of retiring Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, a much-praised appointee of the prior mayor, Sheila Dixon.

Rawlings-Blake wanted to separate her administration from the disgraced Dixon, who had been convicted of gift-card theft and forced from office. Barksdale became an unintended casualty.

Early Warning 

We should have suspected the wheel was coming off the track for Rawlings-Blake in 2012 when two groups complained that the mayor’s advisory panel to pick a new police chief didn’t include  any civil rights or community leaders. They called it a “closed-door process being made in a vacuum.”

That apt description also applies to many of Rawlings-Blake’s major decisions since then.

It might have been quite different if the mayor had moved heaven and earth to get Bealefeld to stay on as police commissioner. The Baltimore native knew the city and its law enforcement team like the back of his hand. His demeanor and policing tactics were working big-time. He was changing the culture of the police force for the better and crime had declined sharply.

Former Police Chief Fred Bealefeld

Former Police Chief Fred Bealefeld

Barksdale, a born-and-raised Baltimorean like Bealefeld, would have continued those policies. Instead, Rawlings-Blake, as has been her pattern, opted for something new and different — an credentialed outsider who knew nothing about Charm City.

Batts came in, and Barksdale immediately went on medical leave for two years until he could retire at full pay. Also exiting was Col. Jesse Oden, who ran the Criminal Investigations Division. Batts forced out most of Bealefeld’s team and brought in more outsiders, like himself. It was downhill from there.

Dixon will claim in the mayoral campaign that she hired the right guy for the job — Bealefeld — and that Rawlings-Blake had gone outside the department to select a new police commissioner who never understood Baltimore and as a result mishandled April’s standoff with angry mobs in West Baltimore.

Mayor’s Prime Failure

The resulting conflagration, looting and violence staggered Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake’s excessive caution, excessive deliberation, her inability to grasp quickly what needed to be done and her aloofness may well cost her a second term.

At the heart of the problem was the mayor’s failure to recognize the importance of retaining and promoting highly experienced and skilled people from the inside rather than turning to outsiders.

National searches are overrated. Too often the outsider selected is intent on wiping out existing leadership and policies. Different is deemed better. Past successes are denigrated. Home-grown talent is shown the door.

The new leader hires more outsiders to run things differently. It takes them years to figure out the local turf. Morale plunges, confusion reigns and progress — if at all — is slow in coming.

Promoting from within is quicker and usually pays hefty dividends. The best Baltimore police chiefs, from Frank Battaglia to Leonard Hamm to Fred Bealefeld, came up through the ranks.

But new bosses — in politics and in business —  feel a need to show they are in charge by making a dramatic break with the past, even when that move is counter-productive.

High Price

Rawlings-Blake is now paying the price for insisting on new-and-different. Instead  of hiring a “change agent” as police chief, she should have stuck with the Bealefeld-Barksdale policies that were working so well.

Acting Commissioner Kevin Davis is both an insider and an outsider. He’s been a deputy commissioner for six months, which gives him a head start. Yet his prior career — an up-from-the-ranks success story — was spent in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

Acting Police Commissioner Kevin Davis

Acting Police Commissioner Kevin Davis

Davis has a firmer grasp of Maryland policing than Batts did. He’s had time to assess the existing leadership. He’s seen what went wrong over the past half-year. But can he institute changes that lower the crime rate, boost police morale and improve community relations?

That’s a tall order, especially  in the midst  of a heated mayoral campaign.

His initial innovation — establishing a multi-agency “war room” to go after the “bad guys” causing much of the mayhem — sounds exactly like Fred Bealefeld’s operating mantra.

Given the failures at City Hall and at police headquarters in April, any move by Davis that lowers the violence and hostile rhetoric would be a giant step forward.

If he can get a handle on the crime epidemic, he deserves the job permanently regardless of who wins the April Democratic mayoral primary.

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Plan B for Baltimore

By Barry Rascovar

July 6, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. never devised a backup plan before killing Baltimore’s pivotal, $2.9 billion Red Line rapid-transit route last month. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seems equally bereft of new transit ideas.

Red Line route killed by Hogan

Red Line route killed by Hogan

So let’s see if we can help with some less expensive, but sensible, proposals to improve mobility and job access in Maryland’s largest urban region.

Since Hogan is expected to stubbornly resist pleas from transit and regional officials to revive a slimmed-down version of the Red Line, it is time to move on to Plan B.

Clearly, Hogan had not done his homework — another rookie mistake from a first-time elected official. A more seasoned politician would have delayed the Red Line announcement until it could be paired with an alternative proposal for moving mass transit forward in metro Baltimore.

Rawlings-Blake hasn’t been much better. She seems bereft of what to do next — a failure of the mayor, her staff and her transportation and planning teams to recognize that viable options were needed as a stand-by once a conservative Republican became governor.

Bare-bones Transit

Baltimore’s transit system might be called a bare-bones, 20th century model. Buses traverse the main thoroughfares radiating like spokes from downtown. Cross-town buses add to the mix of slow-moving public transit on heavily congested city streets.

Baltimore’s Metro (14.5 million riders per year) works exceedingly well — it is fast and clean — but only serves people who can reach its one line, from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The region’s north-south light-rail line (8.6 million riders per year) is slow-moving through downtown, never connects directly with the Metro and isn’t heavily used.

There’s also a popular, city-subsidized Downtown Circulator with four routes that offer free service and actually connect people to where they need to go within the city. It’s becoming a drain on a money-poor city, though.

Charm City Circulator bus

Charm City Circulator bus

Suburban transit is a joke. Unless you own a car or live near a corridor road with buses, you’re out of luck in the Baltimore ‘burbs.

That’s a pretty weak transit operation. Killing the Red Line erases an opportunity to integrate and coordinate Baltimore’s public transportation network with a strong east-west line.

Yet there are steps the city and state can take to ameliorate this sad situation. Among the possibilities:

Resurrect the western part of the Red Line, from Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn to the Lexington Market downtown, as a busway.

Separated buses-only lanes built for fast transport could achieve much of what the Red Line was designed to do in West Baltimore and western Baltimore County. Both the light-rail and the Metro have stations near Lexington Market. If a busway proves successful, more spurs could be added, such as a Catonsville tie-in and a Columbia tie-in.

Extend the existing Metro line from Hopkins to Northeast Baltimore and then White Marsh in Baltimore County.

This Green Line, proposed in 2002, would add greatly to Metro ridership, especially if the state offers ample parking for suburban drivers who are anxious to avoid the hassle, delays and high cost associated with taking their cars downtown for the day.

Expand the city’s Charm City Circulator routes to more neighborhoods; embrace the same approach in the suburbs. 

This would require ongoing state subsidies and cooperation from surrounding counties but it would give people — especially the young and the elderly — convenient travel options they don’t have now.

Develop transportation programs for getting city job-seekers to suburban employment centers.

Free Jitney service from bus stops and transit stations to buildings in suburban business parks would help immensely.

Right now, long commutes and one- or two-mile walks from bus and transit stops prevent employable city workers from filling two-thirds of the job openings in the suburbs. That’s a situation Hogan and his economic development team should jump into immediately and devise affordable solutions.

Expand bus service in metro Baltimore; enlarge the MTA’s fleet of buses by purchasing smaller vehicles; reduce the number of bus stops.

Baltimore needs more right-sized transports that can navigate narrow city streets. It also has way too many bus stops, placed there by powerful Democratic officials. Hogan, as a Republican governor, can put an end to this silliness. Fewer close-together stops means faster trips for passengers.

Expand MARC commuter rail service; add frequent rush-hour/mid-day service to Aberdeen Proving Ground; turn MARC’s West Baltimore station into a bus/rail/circulator hub; open a new rail station/bus/circulator hub at Hopkins Bayview; turn the MARC Martin State Airport stop into a rail/bus/circulator hub.

MARC commuter rail train

Commuter rail train (MARC)

MARC can serve as a transit magnet for the metro Baltimore region. The potential is there.

APG and nearby business parks in Harford County need a practical transit option for civilian employees that is fast, convenient and dependable.

MARC’s West Baltimore station was planned as a key transit hub of the Red Line. It’s still a great idea if Hogan wants to show disgruntled residents of that impoverished area he cares.

Hopkins Bayview and Martin State Airport are natural transit hubs, if the state builds large parking lots and adds circulator routes. This would be a godsend for eastern Baltimore County and East Baltimore residents in search of transit alternatives.

Now that Hogan has wiped away a couple of decades of Red Line planning and $288 million already spent on that transit line, it’s incumbent upon the governor to move on to a more cost-effective plan involving a variety of transit options.

He could start with some of the suggestions listed above.

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