Category Archives: Transportation

Hogan, King of the Road(s)

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 25, 2017–Gov. Larry Hogan never met a highway project he didn’t like. He’s a 1950s type of politician – solve all the state’s transportation gridlock and congestion by paving the countryside with lanes of new concrete.

He’s got a $9 billion plan that is a lollapalooza: Let construction giants build and pay for toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and the busy I-270 corridor from the beltway to Frederick – 70 miles of exclusive Lexus lanes – and let those companies reap the toll rewards so they can recoup a staggering $7.6 billion investment (the actual cost is likely to be substantially higher).

Then Hogan says he’ll take the state’s part of the profits and turn the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, now owned by the U.S. Park Service, into curb-to-curb concrete with nary a tree or woodlands in between.

Hogan: King of the Road(s)

He could re-name it the B-W Speedway.

It’s an all-highway solution straight out of the mid-20th century.

While conversation over this stunning proposal has barely started – Hogan consulted very few people it seems – there are a slew of points that deserve consideration before his back-to-the-future initiative gets too far off the ground:

The environmental damage, especially along the B-W Parkway, could be substantial.

How can the Park Service, even under a run-amuck Trump administration, turn the parkway’s 30 miles of mature woodlands over to a state eager to destroy those trees and vast stretches of scenic greenery? Is such a move even legally permissible?

Eight lanes of concrete – four new toll lanes (plus wide shoulders) and four toll-free lanes – would convert the parkway into a high-speed, tension-filled raceway.

For homeowners and neighborhoods abutting or close to the three roadways, Hogan’s plan is a calamity.

When a two-lane expansion of the B-W Parkway was proposed in 2011, Greenbelt leaders loudly objected, fearing the intrusion of the busy highway directly into the town. Imagine what a four-lane toll expansion will do to Greenbelt and other communities along the route.

The situation is far worse along high-density sections of I-270 and the Capital Beltway. Gigantic lawsuits and protests await Hogan when he tries to seize all that private property from businesses and homeowners – and then turn the land over to a consortium that would profit from those government land-grabs.

At the end of this project, Hogan may have done little to relieve highway congestion.

Every expansion of I-495 and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway) has meant more cars on those roads and a quick return to the same level of congestion and added pollution. Los Angles has experienced the same thing with the famed I-405, where a $1.4 billion expansion didn’t help ease congestion at all.

The notion that Maryland taxpayers won’t be on the hook for a lot of the expense of these mega-projects isn’t realistic.

Hogan’s no-cost-to-taxpayers assertion may sound good to voters, but there’s virtually no way he can make it happen. These are ultra-expensive projects. For starters, seizing private properties through eminent domain can’t be privatized and will be extraordinarily expensive in the high-priced Washington suburbs.

Hogan also says the state’s share of profits from the I-495 and I-270 toll lanes will pay for the four toll lanes on the B-W Parkway. That doesn’t compute given the woeful record of the state’s last two toll projects – the Intercounty Connector and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes from Baltimore to White Marsh. Neither has come near the revenue numbers anticipated prior to construction.

Maryland’s toll authority already is in a heap of long-term financial trouble that would be compounded by these mega-projects.

The Department of Legislative Services says that between now and 2022, Maryland’s tolling facilities will take in $267 million less than projected but operating expenses will be $588 million higher than anticipated. This will force $1.7 billion worth of cuts to future projects and reduce the toll authority’s ability to float bonds by $3.7 billion.

Adding Hogan’s toll-road projects, even with a public-private contract, will scare the heck out of bond-rating agencies, which know full-well the state isn’t getting a free ride on construction projects of this size.

Transportation trends are not on Hogan’s side.

In good times, more cars and trucks use highways and toll roads. But in bad times, the reverse is true. Experts almost universally note the nation is ripe for an economic downturn. That means a big drop in gas tax and toll receipts for Maryland’s transportation agencies.

Rising fuel-mileage standards are hurting Maryland’s gas-tax receipts, too. So is the growth of electric vehicles on the road.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transportation Authority’s debt service is soaring – a nearly six-fold increase between 2007 and today with no decline in sight over the next 25 years.

The authority “will need to make long-term changes in order to remain financially stable,” DLS reported early this year. Hogan’s mega-projects ignore that suggestion and add to the state’s highway obligations.

Say goodbye to any future mass transit projects.

Hogan’s plan gives zero attention to a balanced transit solution in Central Maryland, instead putting all the state’s transportation eggs in a highway basket. That’s not the direction Virginia or other Eastern states with similar congestion woes are heading.

Such a vast expansion of I-295, I-495 and I-270 will create massive new gridlock at exit and access points.

How in the world could Russell Street in Baltimore handle an additional two lanes of rush-hour traffic? Ditto as the BW Parkway flows into New York Avenue in D.C. It would be a nightmare. Arterial roads and cut-through streets in adjacent neighborhoods along these three interstate highways would be clogged. The law of unintended consequences could kick in.

Passing environmental tests posed by federal and state laws and regulations could delay construction for many years, especially on the B-W Parkway.

Rest assured, legal challenges to every aspect of Hogan’s plan will be posed by environmental groups, well-to-do neighborhood associations along these routes and local governments.

Indeed, Hogan may be out of office by the time the first ground-breaking ceremony takes place – which may be part of his strategy.

What happened to helping Joe Six-Pack and the “forgotten Americans” who can’t afford E-ZPass transponders or Lexus lanes?

There’s nothing in Hogan’s transportation vision that helps people at the lower end of the economy. No expansion of commuter buses, no shuttles connecting workers to spread-out job sites, no future mass transit such as a desperately needed east-west line through Baltimore.

Hogan’s highway proposal creates a windfall for the well-to-do and transportation businesses.

The plan is a winner for candidate Hogan.

Expect hefty campaign contributions from the construction and highway industries, from trucking concerns and from companies along these routes that figure to benefit from additional high-speed, interstate concrete lanes.

For voters, Hogan’s plan sounds great and makes an ideal campaign pitch. The devil is in the details, though, which Hogan won’t mention to voters.

How Democrats react to Hogan’s mega-plan will be fascinating to watch. Commuters want highway relief. But will they like what comes with the relief Hogan is offering?

Putting specifics before voters won’t be easy because the topic is complex. Voters like simple solutions and Hogan is very good at giving simple answers to exceedingly complicated problems.

How will the two other members of the Board of Public Works vote on Hogan’s plan?

They hold the key. Without BPW approval, Hogan’s super-highway plans are dead.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp will have to dissect the extensive financial ramifications of Hogan’s proposal, the environmental impact, the legal liability such a huge seizure of private property might entail and the impact this would have on the lives of thousands of residents and businesses along those interstate routes.

About the only thing that seems assured is this: Hogan’s sweepingly ambitious highway-building plan is a long way from getting built.

##  

Will Hogan’s Slimmed-Down Budget Implode?

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 30, 2017 – Through no fault of his own, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s slimmed-down, $43.5 billion budget could implode at any moment, depending on actions in Washington by President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress intent on slashing federal domestic spending.

Just one example: Trump wants immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act – the hated Obamacare he pilloried in the campaign. Tea party Republicans in Congress are marching rapidly down that same path.

It sounds wonderful to Trump’s followers and foes of the ACA.

But the loss of ACA funds would blow an immediate $1.26 billion hole in Hogan’s balanced budget – and would add up to a stunning $7.7 billion loss for Maryland over the next five years.

That’s just the tip of Maryland’s deficit iceberg if Trump and his Republican majority on the Hill start chopping with their budget axes.

Maryland’s Budget Plight

Losing ACA funds would cost Maryland $100 million in savings from drug rebates that Hogan is counting on in his budget, $62 million in child health matching money, $16 million for home care and $225 million in federal support that subsidizes health insurance for 60,000 moderate- or low-income Marylanders.

Then there’s Trump’s federal job freeze, with Virginia and Maryland most at risk of seeing large declines in its federal work force.

Think what it would mean for the Free State’s economy – and tax collections – if Trump and Congress slash the workforce at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Social Security Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health – all centered in Maryland.

There’s nothing in Hogan’s budget to cushion the state from a Trumpian-sized downsizing of the federal government. Instead, his fiscal blueprint ignores that approaching whirlwind and focuses instead on ratcheting downing spending without destroying existing social programs.Hogan's Slimmed-Down Budget

Clearly, the governor is trying to make it past the next election using smart spending hold-downs and a hoped-for upward bump in revenue collections.

He certainly wasn’t considering the anti-spending mood in Washington or the state’s precarious long-term budget outlook. Hogan just wants to get through 2018.

But legislative budget analysts noted last week there are very large deficits looming that Hogan hasn’t addressed.

Budget Quicksand

Those potential pools of red ink leave “the state vulnerable to expected federal cost containment actions” that include personnel cuts, greatly reduced agency budgets and repeal of the ACA without a viable replacement.

As it stands, Hogan’s budget could run into big trouble with Maryland’s Medicaid program this coming fiscal year. Legislative analysts politely wrote that the governor’s budget “contains optimistic assumptions” about slower Medicaid enrollment and the state’s ability to recoup drug rebates from pharmaceutical companies.

If Hogan’s number are wrong, his Medicaid allocation could be in deficit territory by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some of the governor’s budget-balancing tricks aren’t likely to work, either.

For instance, he figures he can save nearly $100 million if the legislature repeals spending mandates lawmakers approved last year. Don’t count on Democratic lawmakers giving the Republican governor what he wants.

Additionally, Hogan wants to increase the budget deficit in future years by handing out tax cuts to military retirees, police and firefighters, tax savings to those with student loans, and tax breaks to small business owners offering sick leave to workers.

The cost? $106 million in the first year and $488 million over the next five years.

Deficits Return

Hogan says he wiped out the state’s structural deficit with this budget – but only because he grabbed $170 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Even worse, analysts say Hogan’s financial plan does little to prevent a widening structural deficit in future years, growing to $432 million a year from now and $1.2 billion four years later – and that doesn’t even take into account the worsening fiscal situation if Obamacare is repealed.

The Department of Legislative Services also points to deeply troubling trends in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital spending plan. MDOT can’t build all the projects it is promising due to a tightening revenue picture.

Maryland’s gas tax receipts are far less than expected, debt service costs are rising and MDOT operating expenses are galloping ahead of projections.

On top of that, Hogan has set aside $747 million in MDOT cash to greatly increase highway-construction aid to Maryland counties. That move would require a sharp cutback in bonds issued by MDOT, which means reducing the number of promised transportation projects over the next six year.

MDOT’s Growing Budget Hole

All told, MDOT is $1.7 billion short of the money it needs to complete projects on its list. Moreover, analysts say the department is underestimating its own operating expenses by $585 million in future years.

There could be tough questioning and resistance to Hogan’s transportation program when his minions try to explain this disturbing situation to the General Assembly’s budget panels.

Yet the MDOT quagmire could rapidly become a secondary concern if the White House and Congress go on a budget-cutting rampage this spring, creating “carnage” in state capitals.

On its own, Hogan’s budget appears to be a sensible, Republican-styled attempt to slowly diminish spending in ways that begin to align appropriations with the state’s annual revenue flow.

He resorts to a number of gimmicks to balance this year’s fiscal package, but what governor doesn’t?

There are almost certain to be fireworks over Hogan’s more questionable budget proposals in the next few months—especially if the man in the White House turns off much of Maryland’s fiscal pipeline from Washington.

###

Hogan’s Holiday Hoax

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 19, 2016 – You’ve got to hand it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. What a prankster he is!

He’s pulled off one of the great holiday hoaxes of recent times in Maryland.

He’s got everyone convinced he is willing to kill 66 major highway projects in Maryland in order to get the legislature to repeal a law requiring a transparent advisory evaluation and ranking of big road, bridge and transit proposals.

Hogan's Holiday Hoax

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He’s worked himself into a lather about what, for political purposes, he niftily calls “the road kill bill” saying it will “wreak havoc on our entire transportation system.”

Anyone who disagrees with Hogan’s the-world-is-ending interpretation “is ignorant of the facts.”

This repeal-law effort, he says with a straight face, is his No. 1 priority in the coming General Assembly session.

That’s pretty strong stuff.

It’s got to be a holiday hoax. After all, virtually nothing Hogan is saying is based on a truthful, fact-based assessment of the situation.

He’s made the whole thing up – hopefully to give us a good laugh this joyful season (ho, ho ho!).

Darth Vader in Annapolis

Under Hogan’s alternative-universe scenario, the law passed by Democrats in the legislature ties his hands and requires him to kill road projects in all but a handful of urban jurisdictions – even though that’s not even close to what the statute says.

The state’s highest-ranking legal officer, the attorney general, says Hogan’s “Rogue One” interpretation of the law is pure science fiction. But for some reason Hogan wants to play Darth Vader in this reality show.

If you read the law, HB 1013, you’ll conclude it’s pretty meek: A toothless attempt to force more transparency in the state’s transportation funding process.

The law has no enforcement provision.

There is no penalty if Hogan ignores the statute.

It merely calls for a quality analysis, and ranking, of proposed transportation projects. After that list is compiled, Hogan & Co. are free to disregard the results – without any negative consequences.

Free Rein for Hogan

To drive home the point that the new law gives Hogan carte blanche to do as he pleases, lawmakers added this concluding sentence: “[N]othing in this Act may be constructed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, Hogan can fund whichever road, bridge and transit projects he wants regardless of the score it receives.

All he’s gotta do is give “a rational basis for the decision. . . in writing.”

Like, “it will make the road safer.” Or “it will reduce traffic congestion.” Or “it will help economic development.”

Sounds easy for Hogan to abide by this law while he continues to dole out transportation dollars any way he wants.

Not according to the governor and his transportation boss, Pete Rahn. Indeed, Rahn has put forth four pages of regulations that ensure a fiery head-on collision in which dozens of road projects will be denied state funds.

As one witness put it at a Nov. 18 hearing on Rahn’s convoluted regulations, Hogan & Co. “are determined to not make this work.”

Transportation Funding Shortfall

Why would they do that?

One reason could be Hogan doesn’t have the funds to pay for all the road projects he’s promised the counties, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

DLS calculates Hogan will have to cut $315 million next year from his previous transportation proposals (and $1.6 billion over six years) to stay within the department’s debt ratio.

It seems that the six-year forecast for gas-tax receipts is falling far short of Hogan’s estimates and that the governor is overspending on transportation operations.

Something’s got to give. So naturally the politician in Hogan wants to shift blame to those evil Democrats in the legislature.

Suddenly a law that is unenforceable and totally advisory gets transformed by Hogan into Maryland’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Political Posture

Hogan is likely to continue beating this bogus “road kill” issue to death as the 2018 election approaches.

He won’t get much help, though, from Democrats in the legislature.

It was clear at the Nov. 18 hearing that lawmakers want to work out a compromise in which the law is tweaked in ways that make it even more explicit Hogan remains fully in charge of deciding which transportation projects get funded and which do not.

Democrats aren’t going to cave in to Hogan’s illogical repeal demand. That is rightly seen as a politically inspired subterfuge.

Indeed, Hogan’s holiday hoax could backfire.

If, as expected, lawmakers amend the law so most everyone – except the governor – is happy with the outcome, Hogan no longer will be able to blame Democrats for killing road projects.

The governor remains the only person who can put forth funds for state transportation projects.

If he fails to deliver on his earlier road-improvement promises, he’ll have to man up to the fact that it was his decision.

That’s not the posture he wants as his reelection campaign draws near, which seems to be the most likely explanation for the governor’s bizarre “road kill” holiday hoax.

###

Advice to Hogan: ‘Take a Deep Breath’

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 28, 2016–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.

Advice to Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Charles County

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 foolishly 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 ten years to pay for the replacement bridge.

Pay-Go Proposal

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.

Advice to Hogan

Sen. Mac Middleton of Charles County

Less-Costly Option

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 Trump-like 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 percent 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.

###

A Third Bay Crossing?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 6, 2016 – It was ironic that news of Jerry Wolff’s death this past week coincided with the splashy announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. of a $5 million study to examine the site and funding options for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing.

Wolff was the last all-powerful head of the State Roads Commission during the late 1960s under Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. He was the mastermind behind legislative approval and construction of the parallel bay bridge span.

That 1973 structure cost $148 million. The original Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which was built after a 15-year battle for a mere $45 million, opened in 1952.

The next bay crossing could cost a staggering $7 billion – and probably double that by the time it opens 10 or 15 years from now.

Or rather, if a third span is ever built.

Mega-bucks Needed

Even with federal assistance, Maryland would be hard pressed to find that staggering amount of money for a project that mainly alleviates monster traffic backups on summer weekends. The rest of the year the existing parallel structures easily handle two-way traffic between the eastern and western shores.

Moreover, a critical part of any funding solution – bridge and tunnel tolls – was cut by Hogan to fulfill a campaign promise to lower taxes.

That means a revenue loss to the Maryland Transportation Authority that could approach $1 billion over the next 15 years – just when a third bay span would need to be financed.

A Third Chesapeake Bay Bridge?

Parallel Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans between Sandy Point and Kent Island, MD

Having foreclosed that pivotal revenue source, how in the world does Hogan intend to pay for this massive undertaking?

Answer: He doesn’t.

Hogan is passing the buck, this time to a study group that conveniently won’t report back to him until 2020. Then Hogan can flip the hot potato of how to pay for such a stunningly expensive construction project to the Democratic legislature and blame them for inaction.

Another ‘Boondoggle’?

Ironically, it was Hogan who killed the Baltimore-area’s major transportation initiative, the $3 billion Red Line project – which had $900 million in federal funding lined up. He claimed it was way too expensive. Hogan sneeringly called the Red Line’s downtown tunnel “a boondoggle.”

Yet now he is promoting a third bay crossing at double or triple that amount at a time when the state is short on transportation funds, in part due to Hogan’s populist toll reductions.

Maryland has other enormously expensive toll-road needs that Hogan doesn’t want to confront – or pay for.

The dangerously steep and narrow two-lane Harry W. Nice Bridge spanning the Potomac River between Charles County and the northern neck of Virginia is 76 years old. It’s not in great shape.

Hogan blocked $50 million allocated by his predecessor for planning and design of a new four-lane span, claiming a new $1 billion crossing would be too expensive.

He favors a far cheaper Band-Aid approach to the existing, aging structure, which is a bottleneck and lacks shoulders. Powerful lawmakers, though, are trying to force him to bite the bullet and replace the Potomac crossing.

Then there’s the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge connecting U.S. 40 between Harford and Cecil counties. It, too, is 76 years old. It cost just $5 million when built. But giving it a foundational overhaul will be extremely expensive. Hogan hasn’t allocated a penny for that undertaking.

Playing Politics

Instead, the governor wants to win political points with beachside merchants and summer vacationers headed “downy ocean” by holding out the promise of easy travel across the Chesapeake but leaving the tough funding decisions to someone else.
Already critics are calling Hogan’s plan a new boondoggle.

Even if the state turned to a public-private partnership – which would hand all the revenue and control of the span (and possibly the parallel crossings, too) to a for-profit company – paying the state’s share for a third bay bridge would crowd out virtually every major toll and bridge improvement for years to come.

There’s also the complicated matter of expanding roads leading to the third span on both sides of the bridge. It can’t be done inexpensively or without an environmental cost. Local opposition could be intense.

Hogan, of course, might try to get the job done with a patch-up by adding a single lane to the original bay bridge. But even that falls into the mega-billion-dollar range.

Why a Third Span?

All this begs the question as to whether a third span is essential.

Given the reality of climate change and rising sea levels, by the time a third crossing opens for vehicles much of Ocean City’s beach could be under water. The rush to O.C. might slow dramatically in a quarter-century.

Sen. John Astle, whose Annapolis district includes the western bay bridge approaches, calls this an “impossible problem.” Maryland can’t afford the incredibly high price of a third bay bridge and Hogan has shown zero inclination to raise revenue to pay for it.

Thus, the Hogan study group is likely to produce another report that will gather dust on a shelf. That was true of a study under Gov. Bob Ehrlich and a report under Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Hogan just wants to curry favor with beach-going voters and Ocean City businesses without having to take the unpopular step of raising tolls and other taxes to build a third crossing of the nation’s largest estuary.
###

Hogan’s Trump Tendencies

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 29, 2016 – The yin and the yang of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan keep bubbling to the surface.

On the one hand, he’s made it clear he finds Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump offensive. The Republican governor says he doesn’t like Trump, disagrees with his behavior and many of his statements and won’t vote for him.

On the other hand, Hogan continues to dip into Trump’s bag of tricks to win emotional points with voters. Indeed, Hogan was way ahead of Trump in one aspect of propaganda campaigning – the use of a fictitious story as a key election tool.

Hogan'sTrump Tendencies

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Trump has become a master of making it up as he goes along. He’s even better at taking a negative development and embroidering it with a fairy tale of malevolence and evil that rivals the Brothers Grimm.

Hogan does the same thing. The most recent example is the absurd furor he’s prompted over his mis-named “road kill bill.” It’s similar to his virtuoso propaganda winner from the 2014 campaign: Hogan’s mis-named “rain tax” – a savvy fabrication that helped win him the governorship.

Evil Bill?

This time, Hogan has latched onto a toothless bill passed by Democrats in the legislature to bring openness to the process of selecting major transportation projects.

Hogan thinks the bill is evil incarnate. It will wipe out every road project in Maryland, he told reporters and county leaders this month. That’s why he calls it “the road kill bill.”

That’s an intentional distortion of the facts for political purposes.

Hogan wants to use this unimportant bill – which he vetoed but then saw overridden by lawmakers – as a hammer against Democrats. He thinks it will help him win another term in 2018. You might call it the second coming of the “rain tax.”

As a candidate in 2014, Hogan harangued Democrats for passage of a bill that allowed 10 counties to impose a local levy on impermeable surfaces such as roofs and asphalt or concrete driveways because these surfaces generate stormwater runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. The tax revenue would be used to reduce waterway pollution.

But Hogan twisted that bill into something that sounded ludicrous. His TV ads sounded the alarm: Democrats had reached the point where “they’re even taxing the rain!”

Brilliant as a campaign tactic. But untrue.

Better Road Planning

Hogan’s latest invention concerns the Democrat-passed “Maryland Open Transportation Decision Act” aimed at bringing a statistical ranking system to road and bridge projects that the public can understand.

Its preamble sets out the purpose: to create “a public process for transportation planning. . . that provides Maryland citizens with a clear and transparent explanation as to how their transportation taxes and revenues are allocated to fund major capital transportation projects.”

The key phrase: “a clear and transparent explanation.” Not a mandate. Not an order that forces the governor to fund projects he opposes. Just a new planning tool shared with the public.

It could be a useful planning mechanism, just as it is in Virginia and North Carolina, where conservative Republican legislatures passed similar measures. Why? Because it’s a sensible way to get the “biggest bang” for the state’s buck – a very Republican notion.

But Hogan is thinking politics, not government efficiency.

He says the bill will wreak havoc on every county road project. He keeps repeating this flight of fancy. Mentioning “the road kill bill” revs up Republican crowds.

Scaring the Counties

Compounding the situation is an effort by Hogan’s minions to twist reality even further. Deputy DOT Secretary Jim Ports tried terrorizing the counties by claiming none of their projects would be funded next year because of this Democratic-passed law.

Pure buncombe.

To begin with, DOT hasn’t even created the detailed scoring and ranking metrics needed to come to such a conclusion. Most important, these rankings don’t count when the governor names the transportation projects he wishes to finance. He still can do as he pleases.

This is strictly a planning tool, not a funding requirement. The law states quite clearly that the governor can ignore the rankings and toss the list in the trash as long as he “provides in writing a rational basis for the decision.”

Moreover, Ports’ ridiculous assertion that every county’s priority list of road projects would be wiped out by this law is refuted by this wording in the statute: “nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, counties still get to name their top projects and Hogan gets to fund them if he wishes.

Following The Donald

Calling it “the road kill bill” is a Trumpian tactic. How ironic for Hogan, who has positioned himself as the anti-Trump in Maryland’s Republican Party. Now he’s following The Donald’s lead by ignoring the facts and generating a story-line that fits his political purposes.

Unfortunately, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Hogan’s made-up “road kill bill.” He will continue demanding that lawmakers get rid of the statute – which won’t happen.

Meanwhile, Ports has made himself a prime target of angry Democrats, who are nearly certain to revise the law to make even clearer that it creates merely an advisory ranking system for road projects.

But has Hogan set an unintended trap for himself?

He and Democrats could get into a game of transportation “chicken” in which lawmakers dare the governor to wipe out all county road projects, as Hogan says is required – but isn’t – under the new advisory law.

What does Hogan do then – especially since this would be happening in the run-up to Hogan’s reelection bid?

Only by harming counties can Hogan prove his assertion is correct. That’s a huge risk for an incumbent who at the moment looks like a shoo-in for a second term.

###

Sifting Truth from Hogan’s Fiction

By Barry Rascovar

July 5, 2016 – He’s at it again. Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. keeps promoting a phony story line to justify attacking Democratic lawmakers and scaring local officials into believing vital road projects are in grave jeopardy.

If that’s the case, why hasn’t the governor named those highway construction projects that are on the “kill list” because of those evil Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly?

He can’t do so because there’s no such animal. Hogan’s bluster is just that: hot air lacking factual back-up.

Last week, Hogan went before conventioneers at the Maryland Municipal League and tried to scare them out of their pants.Sifting Truth from Hogan's FictionHe told them “we cannot and will not let” the General Assembly’s Democratic majority hinder road and bridge repairs.

He did not give one example of such a dastardly deed.

Rally ’Round the Governor

Then he amped up the volume, declaring Municipal League members must rally ’round Hogan to safeguard their local highway aid.

“We’re going to keep fighting to make sure these priority road projects in every jurisdiction continue to move forward,” he said.

“But we need our municipal and our county officials, each and every one of you, to stand with us so our roads and highways don’t go back down a path of neglect and under investment.”

So what is this despicable act perpetrated on local governments and its citizens by the Democratic legislature, according to Republican Hogan?

It centers on a  bill passed in 2015 by lawmakers that forces the state to rank all highway, bridge and transit projects costing more than $5 million that increase capacity. Structural deficiencies and urgent repairs are not included in this ranking.

Hogan vetoed the bill but Democrats easily overrode that veto this year. The law went into effect July 1.

These transportation projects will be rated according to nine objective metrics, such as how much each undertaking improves transportation safety, the economic benefits each project brings to the counties and state and each project’s impact (negative or positive) on the environment.

Hogan’s own transportation department will pick the measurement criteria and do the analysis, not some liberal do-gooder group.

Toothless Law

Once the annual ranking is produced, that’s the end of the story.

Hogan need not follow this priority list. He can ignore it completely.

All he must do, under the law, is explain why he’s disregarding this objective listing of Maryland’s most important road, bridge and transit projects.

It’s a feel-good law lacking any teeth. There’s no enforcement provision. Hogan’s ability to pick and choose transportation winners and losers remains fully in place.

Had this law been in effect in 2015, Hogan still could have killed the Baltimore Red Line subway project and shifted those funds to rural highways where his most ardent supporters live. Nothing would have changed.

All the new law does is provide some welcome transparency. Finally, citizens will get a glimpse into a previously closed-door government process that historically has led to corruption and blatant political favoritism.

Finally, there will be a values-based rating of road, bridge and transit projects and a ranking of which ones score highest.

It Could Get Uncomfortable

Does this endanger local officials’ favored road projects? Not at all. Hogan can still distribute road and bridge goodies as he chooses.

But the rankings may raise uncomfortable questions if county leaders are pushing for a project that scores extremely low.

Yet listening to Hogan’s rants one gets the impression a cataclysmic event is upon us.

He has called it a “terrible, terrible piece of legislation” that threatens “every bridge and every road” project in Maryland!

He has made the blanket statement – lacking concrete, follow-up proof: “We would have to kill pretty much all the road projects in 22 of the 24 jurisdictions. Every bridge and every road.”

Where’s the Proof?

What’s missing are the names of those endangered projects. Until Hogan produces such a list of the road and transit projects he’s been forced to kill because of the new law, his words amount to political bombast.

One of the governor’s likely opponents in 2018, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz put the new law that Hogan keeps screaming about in perspective: “I think it’s fair for the General Assembly to ask how do you establish priority.”

Indeed it is. It’s time to remove some of the mystery surrounding the selection of road, bridge and transit projects and start telling the pubic why some road widenings go to the top of the list and others go to the bottom.

We’re not talking small potatoes here. Maryland’s six-year transportation program amounts to nearly $16 billion.

Shining a bit of sunshine on the selection process is long overdue.

###

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

 

Grading Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Five vetoes and two major appointments in the past week tell us a great deal about Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. – some good, some not so good.

He’s proving to be a more conservative governor than voters probably imagined when they voted him into office. He’s also proving surprisingly doctrinaire in the extreme language in his statements and messages.

Let’s look at Hogan’s recent decisions and grade him the way his college professors might have:

Transit oversight board  

Hogan’s veto language is hysterical in discussing the Maryland Transit Administration Oversight and Planning Board, HB1010. His veto message is a blatant political document meant to rally the faithful. Hogan said  the bill’s provisions “represent a sophomoric attack on sound transportation policy by creating an unprecedented imposition of a politically-driven board to second-guess the authority of an executive branch agency.”

That’s pure hogwash.

This bill merely sets up a transportation advisory panel, another toothless tiger, like the earlier transportation scoring system he vetoed but the legislature overrode. But at least citizens who ride public transit would have a voice to express their concerns via this advisory group.

Transparency and public input are at the heart of this bill, two elements any sane politician ought to applaud. But by vetoing the bill, Hogan comes down emphatically on the side of secrecy and imperial-style decision-making.

In his message, Hogan made the ridiculous claim that the bill degrades Maryland’s quality of life and harms the state’s competitiveness – total buncombe.

He gets an emphatic F.

Morgan State University housing

This bill bars redevelopment of the Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore, where student housing is planned for nearby Morgan State University – unless a local community group approves.

This is a local spat that never should have been taken on by the General Assembly. It is dangerous overreach.

Besides, the conflict between town and gown largely has been settled. There’s no need for such a disruptive and intrusive piece of legislation.

Hogan chose the correct path.

He gets an A.

Bridge over the Potomac

The governor had nasty words for this bill, which forces the state to set aside $75 million over the next 10 years to start paying for a replacement for the scary-as-hell 76-year-old Harry W. Nice Bridge that connects the northern neck of Virginia with Southern Maryland.

Grading Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing of the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

Hogan accused the legislature of superseding the “professional judgment” of his transportation staff. Au contraire, governor.

This bill restores the priority status given to replacing the Nice Bridge by the O’Malley administration. Instead of building a modern $1 billion bridge, Hogan’s folks want a far cheaper expansion of the existing, dangerous crossing over the Potomac River.

That’s not good enough. Until Hogan cut tolls on Maryland roads and bridges, the state had designated a replacement for the Nice Bridge as one of its top objectives. Now there’s not enough money to do the job.

There’s nothing wrong in the legislature expressing its will on major transportation projects. The long debate over the original Bay Bridge took place in the General Assembly. Governance in Annapolis is a shared responsibility – something Hogan wants to change.

Give him an F.

Supporting renewable energy

This bill forces utilities to turn more rapidly to renewable energy for electricity. It’s a boon for advocates of solar and wind power.

The current goal is 20 percent renewables by 2022. This bill forces utilities to reach 25% and to do so two years sooner.

That’s a steep challenge, even with subsidies from ratepayers that could cost close to $200 million by 2020. It may be asking for the impossible.

Maryland has made good progress on the road to renewable energy. But there’s a limit to how far this state, given its latitude and harsh winters, can march in that direction. We’re not part of the Sunbelt and state officials have walled off vast stretches of Western Maryland for renewable wind farms.

Besides, utility rates have been rising for Marylanders, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. Hogan is not about to permit what he sees as a backdoor tax increase.

He merits an A for this veto.

Education collaborative

This bill, SB910, runs into all sorts of constitutional conflicts. The goal is noble – a panel tasked with devising ways to help poor students do better in school. But two members of the General Assembly would hold seats on this board, which would hire a director and staff and set far-reaching education policy.

That’s the job of the executive, not the legislative branch, as any student of high school civics knows.

Hogan is right to teach the bill’s supporters a lesson in constitutional government.

His veto gets a grade of A.

New Public Service Commissioner

Del. Tony O’Donnell of Calvert County is the governor’s latest Public Service Commission nominee. In some ways, it’s a curious choice. O’Donnell, a former House minority leader, is a sharp, talkative conservative Republican who seems to have worn out his welcome even in Republican circles in the House of Delegates.

He knows a lot about the inner workings of electric utilities and the science of nuclear energy, having worked as a supervisor for BGE at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

Yet he’s a pro-business Republican who isn’t likely to give much weight to environmental pleas for “green” power. He’s also not a lawyer and hasn’t steeped himself in the arcane statutory meanderings of utility regulatory law.

O’Donnell will bring an interesting outlook to PSC deliberations. But he’s liable to find those endless hearings dull, long-winded and extraordinarily dense.

Hogan could have done better. He gets a B-minus for this appointment.

New Court of Appeals judge

The governor played political favoritism here, nominating his chief lobbyist, Joe Getty, to the state’s highest court.

Yes, Gov. Marvin Mandel did the same thing with Judge John C. Eldridge. But Eldridge brought to the bench considerable experience with a high-powered law firm. He was widely respected as a legal scholar.

Getty, in contrast, is a former legislator and solo practitioner from Carroll County. He could be overwhelmed by the immensity of confronting 200 highly complex legal appeals each year.

Getty, a staunch but sensible conservative, replaces one of the most liberal judges on the appeals court, Lynne Battaglia. He brings a different perspective to deliberations.

But he also could find himself over his head, having never served as a jurist or been under the gun to write dozens of obtuse appellate decisions on technical legal disputes.

Hogan should have named Getty to a lower court so he could gain much-needed experience before throwing him into the judicial lion’s den.

The governor’s grade: C-minus.

###

Hogan’s April Fool’s Joke?

By Barry Rascovar

April 4, 2016—On April Fool’s Day, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. played a whopper of a prank on the Maryland General Assembly: He vetoed a bill that brings public accountability and transparency to an important state government decision-making process.

Surely, Hogan wasn’t serious about this veto. Right?

 

Hogan's April Fool's Joke?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

After all, Republican legislatures in Virginia and North Carolina have passed similar “openness in government” laws.

Besides, the Maryland bill he vetoed doesn’t weaken Hogan’s power to do as he pleases in selecting transportation projects.

It’s a “feel good” bill that merely requires that Hogan’s team develop a ranking system for transportation projects and then explain if programs low on the list are given priority status in his budget.

Transparency but No Enforcement

Is Hogan against transparency in government? Does he really want to run a more secretive administration?

Of course not.

Is Hogan serious about terming this toothless bill “the worst kind of policy making”?

Is he sincere when he says this flimsy bill will block needed road and bridge projects?

No, of course not.

It’s got to be an April Fool’s joke.

The bill passed by the legislature is decades overdue. Had such transparency in road projects been in place, the corruption scandals involving Spiro Agnew, Dale Anderson and Joe Alton might never have happened.

Shining a light on government decision-making helps avoid shadowy actions by the governor’s staff that are based on political favoritism or cronyism. The public deserves to know how important choices are made. That builds trust in Maryland’s elected leaders.

Trumpian Statements

Hogan’s comments are so far afield from the facts that it’s all got to be a gigantic charade.

Indeed, Hogan’s rantings about this unenforceable transportation transparency bill are so extreme that he sounds almost Trumpian.

Let’s examine some of his claims.

Does this bill strip power from the governor? No.

Does this bill give more power to the legislature? No.

Does this bill block the governor from choosing any road or bridge project he wants? No.

Does this bill harm any Marylanders? No.

Does this bill harm business development? No.

Does this bill infringe on the governor’s right to identify local road projects he wants to fund? Absolutely not.

So why is Hogan in such a lather? Why did he veto a bill that will be overridden promptly by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly?

Partisan, Republican politics, pure and simple.

Energizer Issue

Hogan is using this bill as a device to energize his followers and true-believers. It is part of Hogan’s ideological drive to portray himself and his supporters as victims of those evil Democrats who control the legislature.

He’s arguing on the basis of emotion, not facts. And he’s sounding distressingly like Donald Trump.

Hogan is correct that Democratic lawmakers are becoming more and more distrustful of his actions, such as cancelling the federally-approved Red Line transit route, the terrible appointments he made to the Baltimore City liquor board, the questionable appointments he made to the state’s handgun control board, the suspect actions of his nominee to the Public Service Commission, and his de-emphasis of mass transit in his budget in favor of road projects in Republican counties.

The transportation transparency bill stems from that distrust. If Hogan continues along this path, distrust of Hogan could grow rapidly, with many more objectionable bills reaching his desk.

Hogan knows he’s going to lose this fight with the legislature. He also knows his powers remain fully intact. It’s all for show – and for political gain.

###

 

2015’s ‘Dumb & Dumber Award’

By Barry Rascovar

Before we get too far into the New Year, let’s dispense with the Maryland political maneuver deemed as the low point of 2015: Civil rights advocacy groups waited till the very end of the year to file the worst and most counter-productive legal complaint that’s been filed in a long, long time.

The groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, are essentially suing Gov. Larry Hogan administratively for daring to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line rapid rail route through Baltimore. Their reasoning: Hogan made a racially discriminatory decision that harms African Americans in Baltimore City.Red Line logoNot only is the complaint historically inaccurate, it is pointless and damaging to their cause. For this publicity-seeking waste of time and energy, the groups’ complaint richly deserves 2015’s “Dumb and Dumber Award.”

Leap of Logic

Republican Hogan has been heavily criticized for cancelling the Red Line project, but racial bigotry isn’t one of the charges that sticks.

Not only is it a stretch to make that wild accusation, there’s no evidence to back up the charge.

Did Hogan sit in his office plotting the death knell of the Red Line so he could keep African Americans “in their place”? Did he divert most of the Red Line money to rural and suburban highway projects as a discriminatory move against blacks?

The accusation is preposterous on its face.

Protesters even claim the Red Line was a vital piece of the state’s plan to remedy racial disparities, and that rejecting the Red Line was part of an historic pattern of racially imbedded transportation decisions by state governors.

Pure hogwash.

Red Line History

Never once in all the years I have reported and commented on the Red Line project have I heard such a distorted argument.

Never once did the Democratic O’Malley administration or the Republican Ehrlich administration make the argument that they wanted to proceed with the Red Line because of its civil rights implications.

Never once did the Hogan administration even hint at a racial motive for stopping the Red Line in its tracks.

The civil rights groups are far, far off-base.

Yes, cancelling the Red Line, and the $900 million in federal funds, ranks as the most boneheaded decision of the century (so far) in Maryland.

Yes, it will harm African Americans in Baltimore – but also whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

But Hogan’s move was largely a political decision. Racial discrimination didn’t enter into the discussion.

Not Worth the Cost

He did it because he’s a rigidly conservative Republican who hates big government spending projects that primarily benefit Democratic strongholds. He didn’t feel this controversial construction undertaking was worth the huge outlay of state funds.

He wrongly called the Red Line a “boondoggle” because in his mind any oversized project that won’t help his voter base in rural and suburban Maryland isn’t a priority.

He called the Red Line “unaffordable” even though it clearly could have been downsized and revamped to make it more cost-efficient and make it fit into the state’s long-term transportation budget.

Nixing the Red Line was decided by Hogan long before he took office.

He promised during the 2014 campaign to kill the Red Line. Race had nothing to do with it; conservative ideology had everything to do with his decision.

The civil rights groups also make the argument Maryland has a long history of racially discriminatory transportation and housing decisions.

Excuse me, but how did housing get into this argument over building the Red Line?

Not in My Neighborhood

There’s no doubt housing discrimination was at play in the Baltimore region over the past 100 years. My former colleague at The Baltimore Sun, Antero Pietila, brilliantly presents the case against the federal, state and city governments for their racially biased housing policies in his book, “Not in My Neighborhood.”

But the issue here is transportation, not housing.

Where did the civil rights groups get the idea that building Baltimore’s Central Light-Rail Line and the region’s Metro Line were purposely designed to discriminate against blacks?

That’s buncombe. It rewrites history to fit the groups’ distorted, conspiratorial world view.

Marvin Mandel built the Red Line not to serve white Marylanders but because there was a right-of-way available from the old Western Maryland Railroad that ran through Northwest Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Today, Baltimore’s first mass-transit rail line well serves areas that are both black and white, as well as Hispanic.  Even the line’s county stations serve a very large and growing African American community.

Key Right-of-Way

William Donald Schaefer built the Central Light-Rail Line because there was an abandoned right-of-way available — the former Northern Central Railroad route. It was a cost-and-efficiency engineering decision. The goal, then as now, was to make public transportation to jobs, stores and entertainment easier for EVERYONE – especially those living in Baltimore City.

Neither Mandel nor Schaefer posed as George Wallace seeking to deny blacks better public transportation. Quite the opposite. Race was never a factor in their decisions to build those routes, plain and simple. It did not enter into discussions.

There’s no question Baltimore lacks quality public transportation. There’s no question the city and the state should have done a better job anticipating the need for a comprehensive, coherent and connected mass-transit system that gets low-income adults to job sites.

It’s been a huge failure by state and local officials.

You can blame it on politics, both in Annapolis and in Washington. But you cannot blame Baltimore’s sorry transportation situation on racial discrimination.

Civil rights groups are wasting time and money on this canard. There are important civil rights issues confronting Baltimore at this time, but not the Red Line’s demise.

Fait accompli

The civil rights groups’ complaint to Washington bureaucrats contains another huge leap of illogic: It’s too late to undo what’s been done.

Hogan killed the Red Line. It’s a fait accompli. The federal government is redistributing that $900 million to other cities that weren’t stupid enough to turn their backs on such a huge federal gift.

You can’t revise history to satisfy your wishes. The Red Line money from Washington is gone. A civil rights complaint, even if upheld, won’t make that money reappear.

Besides, who’s to say the Red Line would have solved Baltimore’s discrimination woes? Since when did these civil rights groups become experts in the most advantageous public transportation modes for Baltimore residents of color?

How do they view Hogan’s decision to spend $135 million on improving Baltimore’s sub-par bus system? That’s a whopping amount of money for such an undertaking that will primarily benefit the city’s lower-income workers and residents.

Is that part of the discrimination conspiracy, too?

What a distraction.

These civil rights groups should be ashamed. Demonizing Larry Hogan for unfounded civil rights affronts is a terrible mistake that politicizes the legitimate work of those groups. It polarizes the situation and needlessly antagonizes the one person who holds the purse strings for future transportation projects.

The complaint hurts, rather that helps, Baltimore City in its appeals to Annapolis at a time when the city needs all the help it can get.

###