Category Archives: Transportation

There is No ‘Plan B’

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 12, 2015 –Instead of tamping down the furor surrounding Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s cancellation of the Baltimore region’s $2.9 billion rapid-rail Red Line, his administration is adding fuel to the fire.

Instead of presenting alternative rapid transit proposals to Baltimore regional officials at a Monday meeting, Hogan’s transportation chief, Pete Rahn, offered nothing concrete.

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn

Meanwhile, Hogan’s press spokesman continues to spew invective on anyone or any organization that dares dispute that decision.

In sixty days Rahn says he’ll having something to announce on faster bus service.

Wow.

What Happened to Plan B?

The sad truth is that there never was a Plan B.

Hogan fulfilled a campaign pledge by killing the Red Line and shifting all that anticipated state spending over the next six years to road and bridge projects elsewhere in Maryland.

That’s why there are zero plans coming from the governor’s office to bolster the Baltimore area’s sad excuse for rapid transit.

Better travel by bus is a great concept but it is one that Rahn’s department has worked to achieve for decades — with little success. The failure of Baltimore’s bus routes lies entirely at the feet of state officials.

The state owns the buses. The state set up the bus routes. The state pays the drivers. The state manages the bus agency. The state has conducted countless public hearings on improving service. We’re still waiting for dramatic improvements.

Officials know what’s not going right. Can they fix it? So far, the answer is “no.”

Congestion and Buses

Giving riders real-time information on bus arrivals doesn’t get the buses to their destination any faster. How is Rahn going to move buses through congested downtown quickly?

Buses, like cars, sit in backed-up traffic. Too many vehicles clog busy intersections and arterial roads, especially at rush hour. What is Rahn going to do about that?

Subterranean rapid rail bypasses time-consuming street congestion with ease. New York and Washington are great examples of this.

But Hogan won’t pay for digging the tunnels. He wants mass transit projects only if they are cheap and bare-bones. That means no tunnels.

Both Rahn and his boss are highway-centric suburbanites. That’s where the state is putting its money over the next six years, not rapid rail or other urban transportation programs.

On-Time Buses

Regional officials can complain about Hogan’s disrespect toward Baltimore’s rail deficiencies but that won’t move the ball forward.

Once and for all they need to face reality. There won’t be a Plan B coming from the Hogan administration. It was never on Hogan’s game board. He’s already redistributed the Red Line money to non-Baltimore projects.

At best, Rahn might offer Baltimore crumbs in the form of getting buses to run on-time and new bus routes connecting suburban job centers to the city.

Those would be welcome, long overdue steps. Yet they are small, incremental improvements on the cheap.

Between now and next January, the governor can do pretty much anything he wants. He’s running state government without meddling from the Democratic legislature.

He’s setting up a fractious clash next year, though.

Uncaring Governor?

The impression is growing that Larry Hogan doesn’t care about Baltimore City. It’s a hostile political environment for a Republican governor. The city’s chronic problems are difficult and expensive to address. He’d rather spend state dollars in communities that vote Republican. He also doesn’t seem to grasp the deep societal woes that are dragging down a once-great American community.

Yet the decline is happening on his watch.

Like it or not, Hogan will be blamed if Baltimore’s slump accelerates while he is governor and he fails to take action.

Baltimore badly needed the economic boost the Red Line would have provided. Having killed that project, Hogan haven’t come forth with an alternative stimulus.

Where are the state jobs programs and reconstruction plans for riot-torn West Baltimore? Couldn’t the governor piece together a major housing demolition-and-rehabilitation initiative? There’s a crying need for more and better drug treatment programs. Recreation activities for youth are lacking. So are after-school programs.

Three-plus months since the destructive unrest in Baltimore, the governor has yet to produce a package of helpful initiatives to make life better for inner-city residents. He knows the city’s leaders are strapped for funds. Only the state has the resources to step in and help in a big way.

That is Hogan’s challenge, especially after he axed the city’s only major economic hope.

At this point, the governor should make a point of showing he has not forgotten Baltimore. The city requires large-scale, innovative assistance from Annapolis.

Baltimore’s future lies, to a large extent, in Hogan’s hands.

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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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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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Hogan to Baltimore: ‘Drop Dead’

By Barry Rascovar

June 29, 2015 –Larry Hogan Jr. never has had an affinity for Baltimore. He’s never lived in a big city. He’s a suburban Washington, suburban Annapolis kind of guy.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. standing in front of Purple Line map

Hogan also is a cold, calculating political animal. He has embraced  a staunch right-wing mindset — all government spending is bad, all liberal social programs are wasteful, all outlays that don’t help him politically are a boondoggle.

Thus, it was easy for Governor Hogan to kill more than a decade worth of work, more than a quarter-billion dollars already spent and to forfeit $900 million in federal funds that would have gone toward building a pivotal rail-transit line for Baltimore, the Red Line.

No Help

It is reminiscent of President Gerald Ford’s stern rebuke to New York City’s pleas for urgent help to avert imminent bankruptcy in 1975. As the New York Daily News summed it up so aptly in its banner headline the next day: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Ford thought a bailout would be a wasteful boondoggle, too. Why save the nation’s greatest city? That’s not government’s role!

New York Daily New, 1975

New York Daily New, 1975

Hogan takes the same unyielding attitude toward Baltimore, which in his mind really isn’t part of Maryland.

It’s such a nonentity — where poor people live — that when he sent word on Twitter of his $2 billion in road projects and $167 million for the Purple Line project in the Washington suburbs, Hogan’s aides failed to show Baltimore City on their map. It had vanished into the Chesapeake Bay.

Freudian slip? You bet.

When asked that day what was in his transportation package for Baltimore, the Republican governor said there was nothing.

Saw It Off

Hogan would just as soon see Baltimore and its expensive needs disappear, or as Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater famously said in 1963, “Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

GOP Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater

It’s no surprise Hogan committed over 90 percent of his transportation package to roads and bridges, becoming the darling of the asphalt and concrete industries. Fund-raising checks will roll in from those interest groups.

Giving the back of the hand to Baltimore is becoming a Hogan habit. Sure, he put on a good face by sending in the National Guard and jovially walking the mean streets of the city briefly (with State Police protection, of course).

But what has the governor done for Baltimore since then to address city residents’ discontent? Precious little.

This is the same governor who deep-sixed needed education aid for city schools in his first budget and then backed out of a compromise to restore some of those funds.

It was just more wasteful, irresponsible spending in Hogan’s eyes.

Body Blow for City

Failing to support the Red Line is a crushing blow for the state’s only large city, a city that in many respects is barely treading water.

The Red Line could have been a giant jobs-generator and income-producer in an urban center with very high unemployment. Instead, he called it a “boondoggle.” (Ironically, Hogan at the same event praised the Purple Line because of it jobs-producing potential.)

it would have been a godsend for the people in West Baltimore who rioted in April over their impoverished conditions, creating access to employment opportunities along the Red Line route, from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview.

it would have sparked retail and commercial development and housing at nearly two dozen Red LIne stations.

it would have rejuvenated Baltimore’s sagging downtown business district.

It would have eased some of the traffic gridlock and auto pollution.

Most of all, it would have given Baltimore a connected, viable rail-transit system, providing the missing link not just for city residents but for suburban families living to the east and west.

Sticking to Pledge

The Red Line is dead, killed by a stubborn Larry Hogan. He has fulfilled his campaign promise to conservative, non-urban followers.

There won’t be any major rail transit expansion in Baltimore for two decades or more, thanks to Hogan. That $900 million set aside for the Red Line is lost forever. The highway boys are cheering

The $288 million already spent by the statehas now been turned by Hogan into government waste. His staff, in typical Republican fashion, blamed Democrat Martin O’Malley for that spending on the Red Line, though the onus rightly should have been placed on Republican Bob Ehrlich, who gave the go-ahead.

What Hogan won’t admit is that this money had been well spent — until Hogan turned that sophisticated planning and detailed engineering blueprints to ashes. The wasteful governor is Larry Hogan.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz astutely asked Hogan in a statement what he proposes as his Plan B, his back-up plan, for Baltimore.

There is no alternative. Hogan to City: ‘Drop Dead.’

Now Hogan’s aides are scrambling to come up with some pitiful city road work that can be paraded as a Potemkin Village of a transportation substitute for Baltimore.

Political Calculation

The governor’s decision was a cold, calculated political move: fortify rural and suburban support with $2 billion in road and bridge work and hunt for additional votes for the next election in the Washington suburbs, thanks to his tentative support of the Purple Line.

But don’t be surprised if the Purple Line never gets built.

Hogan remains hostile toward rapid transit. He wants to do the job on the cheap, squeezing Prince George’s and Montgomery counties for hefty extra contributions and then getting a private-sector consortium of builders to chip in another $400 million or more.

This most likely means a slimmed-down rail line that won’t work well or no line at all. There’s also the chance the private-sector developer will be forced to charge exorbitant ticket fares for decades to recoup the investment demanded by Hogan.

Birds of a Feather

It’s no accident Hogan picked a transportation secretary known as a highway man, with zero experience in rapid rail transit. He was brought in to kill at least one of the expensive mass-transit projects, and he  may eventually succeed in killing both.

No wonder Hogan and Secretary Pete Rahn talked about the Red Line as “fatally flawed” and a “boondoggle” because — horrors of horrors — it included costly tunnels through the heart of downtown Baltimore.

Exactly how do you build an efficient subway line — or an “underground” as the British call it — without spending a lot of money to take the Red LIne below grade through the heart of a crowded urban center?

Anything built on the surface would compound downtown gridlock and make a joke of Red Line time savings. Sure, tunneling is very expensive but not if you take into consideration that it will be serving Baltimoreans a century from now.

By Hogan’s and Rahn’s thinking, all of the Washington Metro’s downtown subterranean rail network is a gigantic boondoggle. So is New York City’s subway. And London’s, too.

It’s a phony argument that stalwart conservatives like Hogan trot out.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Hogan get elected, used the same sort of illogic in 2009 to blow up a badly needed $12 billion rail tunnel between his state and New York City that would have doubled New Jersey commuter capacity.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie, like Hogan, set aside the long-term good he might do so he could boast to voters about chopping off the head of a wasteful project.

Solid Democratic

What’s wasteful in this case is failing to give Baltimore a decent mass-transit system that holds the potential to stimulate economic development, job growth and improve residents’ quality of life.

Hogan has no interest, though, in anything dealing with Baltimore. He feels like a stranger there. It’s overwhelmingly Democratic turf. Why bother?

“With these projects, we’re going to touch the lives of citizens across the state,” Hogan said in his announcement. He needed to add the words, “except in Baltimore.”

Now Rahn & Co. are hastily trying to jerry-rig an alternative transportation scheme for Baltimore.

More buses on narrow, overcrowded city streets?

Paving over the existing light-rail line and converting it into a busway?

Or just shoveling more transportation dollars to the city to re-pave its potholed network of deteriorating asphalt?

Without speedy rail transit nothing will prove effective in the long run. Yet Hogan says won’t pay for it in Baltimore (though he will in suburban Washington).

Burying Baltimore

Larry Hogan has put a deep nail in Baltimore’s coffin. He’s not looking to ameliorate the damage, either.

Maryland’s governor is a jovial, common-man sort of figure, but we’re learning that he holds a rigidly conservative view of the world.

In Hogan’s world, Baltimore needs to fend for itself because this governor — to use lyrics from the musical  “West Side Story” — would rather “let it sink back in the ocean.”

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Hogan: Hero or Goat?

By Barry Rascovar

June 15, 2015 — Decision time is nearing on the future of Baltimore’s planned Red Line rail route. Will Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. be celebrated as a hero or lambasted as a goat?

Baltimore's Planned Red Line Route

Baltimore’s planned Red Line route

That question has hovered over the Republican governor ever since he won election last November.

Will he appease his conservative followers and live up to his campaign pledge to kill both the Red Line and the Purple Line in suburban Washington?

Such a move would be a stunning waste of half a billion dollars in state taxpayer dollars already spent. But think of the message it would send to the tea party crowd and Republican ideologues who coalesced around Hogan as a budget-cutter.

Yet it would end any chance of détente between Republican Hogan and the heavily Democratic General Assembly. Such a crushing blow to the three largest Democratic jurisdictions would guarantee all-out warfare — and gridlock — over the next three years in the State House.

Even worse, Hogan would look like a heartless ogre turning his back on impoverished Baltimore right after the dreadful damage of April’s civil unrest.

Rookie Mistake in Japan

The governor’s recent, all-out embrace in Japan of magnetic levitation high-speed trains between Baltimore and Washington was the sort of mistake a rookie politician makes.

Does this mean Hogan supports an unproven technology with a minimum price tag of $10 billion (under the fiction the state wouldn’t pay anything) but not the far more important — and cheaper — Red and Purple Lines?

Adding an inside-the-beltway, east to west light-rail route between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties makes enormous sense.

Purple Line

The planned Purple Line in suburban Washington

Commuting would prove far easier for tens of thousands of people living in suburban communities south of the Capital Beltway. It also would serve poor minority neighborhoods in those two counties. These are the Marylanders who need rapid transit the most.

However, the Washington region already has an extensive Metro system heavily financed by the federal government. If the Purple Line fades to black under Hogan, it’s not a crushing blow.

It would be a stupid move politically and from an economic development standpoint — and a waste of hundreds of millions already spent. But it would hardly be a calamity.

On the other hand, deep-sixing the Red Line would be another nail in Baltimore’s’ coffin.

The region lacks a legitimate rapid-rail system. It’s got a Toonerville Trolley of a light-rail route running north-south, from Hunt Valley to the outskirts of Glen Burnie. And it’s got a heavy-rail subway between Johns Hopkins Hospital and Owings Mills in northwest Baltimore County.

Sadly, the two lines don’t connect. There is no fixed rail route through East or Northeast Baltimore, no rapid rail available to residents of West Baltimore where the disturbances took place.

A True Rail Network

The Red Line would create an imperfect but viable rail system.

East and West Baltimore residents could quickly and easily commute across town as well as north-south. Thousands of workers employed at Social Security headquarters and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn would have fast, convenient train service to their campuses.

The woeful Security Square Mall in western Baltimore County would be given new life for residential, commercial and retail purposes.

The Red Line also would serve nearly every recreational and cultural event in downtown Baltimore.

For West Baltimore residents desperate for jobs, the Red Lines would be a crucial help line. Employment centers in diverse parts of the region suddenly would be within reach by rail connections.

Red Line logo

The 19 Red Line stations could become catalysts for small-scale economic growth and job-creation, too. That’s what has happened in other cities as new rail-transit lines open.

Let’s not forget, as well, the enormous economic boost that the Red Line and Purple Line would give Maryland’s still-lagging economy.

The Red Line alone means 10,000 direct construction and related jobs — all of them paying solid wages. These workers would earn $540 million, at a minimum, as the line is built. The economic impact is far larger if indirect jobs are counted.

For once, Baltimore would have a connected mass transit system, a key lacking ingredient in its attempt to attract the car-less, millennial generation to Charm City.

Forfeiting a Billion Dollars

Here’s another reason why Hogan’s rejection of the Red Line or Purple Line would be penny wise and pound foolish: There’s nearly a billion dollars of federal funds already budgeted for the two projects.

If Hogan tosses the planned routes in the waste can, all that federal money disappears. Maryland then goes to the back of a long line of cities seeking funds for mass transit projects of their own. New transit lines in Maryland would be set back a decade or more.

Yes, Hogan campaigned as a foe of the Red and Purple lines. If he’s smart, though, he will wiggle out of that bind by finding ways to trim construction costs and requiring a larger local match.

We tend to forget that while rapid rail is expensive to build initially — $3 billion for the Red and Purple lines — those tracks will serve the Central Maryland community, where most of the state’s citizens live, not for decades but for centuries.

The London Underground, with 270 stations, is over 150 years old and more popular than ever.

Governors must make hard, difficult choices. Giving the go-ahead on the two rapid rail lines might prove temporarily uncomfortable for Hogan but it is clearly the right thing to do — for future generations of Marylanders and for his own place in the history books.

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

Hogan’s ‘incredible’ maglev gaffe

By Barry Rascovar

June 8, 2015 –In the name of improved economic ties with Japan, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. allowed himself to be used as a marketing tool for a pie-in-the-sky, ultra-expensive transportation project known as “maglev.”

Maglev train in Japan on test track.

Maglev train in Japan on test track.

It’s “an incredible experience” Hogan said of his 300-mile-an-hour ride on a test track in Japan during an economic development trip to Asia.

What’s really “incredible” is Hogan’s willingness to become a promoter of a still-emerging technology with eye-popping costs just as he nears a decision on building two crucial, but far cheaper, conventional mass-transit routes in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs that he previously called “too expensive.”

Supporters of maglev (magnetic levitation) say a Washington-to-Baltimore route would cost a mere $10 billion. Others says the price tag would be many times higher just for the first 40 miles of a route eventually stretching to New York.

Maglev, which glides on a cushion of air and is powered by super-conducting magnets, requires a straight track. It cannot use existing rail rights of way. Thus, the Baltimore-Washington route, through an intensely developed part of Maryland, will have to done by way of a 40-mile-long tunnel.

Now we’re talking REALLY big bucks.

Transformational?

Yet there was Maryland’s governor calling maglev “the future of transportation” that would be “incredibly transformative” for Maryland’s economy.

Huh?

It’s one thing to be polite and complimentary to your host on an overseas economic venture. It’s quite another to join hands with the promoter, the Japanese government, to support a Japanese company’s technology and request $27.8 million from the U.S. government to study a speculative maglev route between the nation’s capital and Charm City.

Just the notion that it won’t cost the state of Maryland one red cent if a Washington-to-Baltimore maglev becomes a reality — backers say it could be funded by Japan, a Japanese railroad and the U.S. government — is enough to wonder what was in the water Hogan drank while in Tokyo.

Hogan and wife Yumi on the test maglev train in Japan

Gov. Larry Hogan and his wife, Yumi, aboard the experimental maglev train in Japan

Sure, it’s a great technology on a test track. But the first maglev train, built in Shanghai, China, has been a flop. That line is only 18 miles long, linking Shanghai’s international airport with a suburb: You still have to transfer to a cab or a light-rail line to reach Shanghai’s downtown.

That route was built by German companies as a sales tool. It didn’t work. When it came time to select a technology for an 800-mile super-speed line between Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese government chose a proven, wheels-on-track bullet-train.

Shouldn’t that tell Hogan something?

Facing Reality

Better to improve what you have with the limited transportation money on hand than jump into a questionable technology that isn’t ready for prime time and costs a fortune.

Does Hogan truly expect the budget-cutting Republican Congress to approve spending tens of billions of dollars on a maglev route through a heavily Democratic state?

Where’s the money going to come from now that Congress refuses to raise the federal gasoline tax — the main source of federal transportation funding?

Congress almost certainly would require Maryland to ante up a big chunk of the money, 50 percent or more.

Transportation Challenges

Hogan has limited state transportation funds and far too many priorities to address. Why divert state resources and waste the time of the state’s transit experts when you’re already faced with:

  • A decision on the Red Line for Baltimore, an absolutely pivotal project.
  • A decision on the Washington area’s Purple Line serving the state’s two most populous and congested counties.
  • A decision on a badly needed new rail tunnel through Baltimore. This directly affects the future of Maryland’s leading economic engine — the Port of Baltimore.
  • A decision on vastly improving Maryland’s commuter-rail line, MARC, so that its popularity continues to grow.
  • A decision on major repairs or replacement of railroad bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush and Gunpowder rivers.
  • A decision on how quickly to repair/replace dozens of deteriorating highway bridges throughout Maryland.
  • A decision on replacing the scary, congested, 75-year-old, two-lane, deteriorating Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River in Southern Maryland — a billion-dollar-plus project.
Gov. Harry Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland

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

With all this on his transportation plate, why in the world would Hogan champion a highly questionable maglev project with a stratospheric price tag and a completion date so far in the future it can’t be seen?

(Note: Japan is building a 175-mile maglev rail line between Tokyo and Nagoya. Construction started last year. The opening date? 2027.)

Unresolved Questions

Maglev is a great idea yet to be fully proven as a power source for long-distance travel. Oodles of engineering and technical issues remain unresolved. Huge political and geographic obstacles remain.

Isn’t it far more sensible to improve existing rail lines and projects nearing the construction stage?

Hogan didn’t help himself by making glowing maglev comments, signing a memorandum of cooperation with the Japanese government on maglev and announcing that he’s seeking federal funds to study a high-speed route in Maryland.

Instead, he needs to get serious about easing travel for Marylanders today, especially in the state’s most crowded regions.

Maglev should be taken off the table.

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

Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Junk the ‘Lockbox’ Amendment

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 21, 2015 — Marylanders are being sold a bill of goods under the guise of fiscal accountability.

Voters ought to think twice before approving a constitutional amendment giving transportation priority status over social programs when the economy turns sour.

Conservatives — especially those who are staunch advocates of road-building — want to embed in the Maryland Constitution a high wall preventing the governor from dipping into the Transportation Trust Fund when the next recession creates a budget crisis.

If this amendment passes, it would be extraordinarily difficult for a governor to draw on transportation dollars to avert recession cuts in money flowing to local governments for schools, health care and social services. State workers’ jobs, pay and pensions would be at risk.

Once the transportation “lockbox” is approved, environmentalists will demand the same iron-clad protection for an array of “green” funds.

lockbox

We’re getting our priorities confused.

Is the No. 1 goal of state government protecting highway funds, even in the midst of a damaging recession?

Is that our top priority when state tax revenues dry up and the governor desperately seeks ways to avoid layoffs and deep cuts to schools, colleges and public assistance?

During the Great Recession, Gov. Martin O’Malley repeatedly took money from the Maryland Department of Transportation to keep important social programs afloat without imposing cuts that would hurt the poor and low-middle class.

Conservatives view this as theft. They want to stop governors from draining the transportation fund when recessions lead to deep budget holes.

O’Malley’s Mistake

Part of the problem is that O’Malley went overboard in shifting hundreds of millions from transportation to support other budget priorities.

He didn’t want to repay MDOT and he continually returned to this large source to pay for non-transportation expenses.

As a result, O’Malley ended up short-changing MDOT by refusing until late in his second term to address MDOT’s unmet financing needs.

Yet the extent of this problem has been greatly magnified by road-building advocates.

30 Year Trend

Over the past 30 years, a total of $574 million has been shifted from the transportation trust fund by governors during hard times to cover more important necessities. Over $325 million of that has been re-paid, with another payment due next year.

The problem with the lockbox amendment is that it ties the hands of future governors at the precise moment financial flexibility is essential.

Lock

Putting together a $40 billion budget is like solving a massive three-dimensional puzzle. There are thousands of moving parts.

Protecting government’s core services requires enormous fiscal dexterity in bad times.

The more maneuvering room a governor has, the easier it is to develop a recession-era budget that meets essential needs without creating hardships.

Recession Options

Sometimes that might mean borrowing from MDOT or from environmental programs set up to purchase green space or preserve farmland.

Or it might mean issuing general obligation bonds to free up cash sitting in a transportation or natural resources account.

The lockbox amendment dramatically limits a governor’s ability to meet future budget crises without imposing hurtful budget cuts.

It goes like this: If the governor cannot transfer $200 million from transportation accounts in the next deep recession to balance his budget, he’s got to take unpalatable steps — cutting aid to community colleges and private universities, local health departments and local school systems, medical assistance, pension programs and environmental funds.

Or he’s got to chop tens of millions of dollars from every state agency and dozens of local programs. Or he’s got to reduce support for state universities, which likely means a big jump in tuition. Or he’s got to fire thousands of state workers and eliminate services.

Strait Jacket for Governor

If the lockbox amendment is approved by voters, the governor’s options would be dramatically reduced.

Getting legislative approval to tap into the transportation fund (it would require a “super-majority” vote) could prove near-impossible in the decades ahead.

The governor might be forced to eliminate part of Maryland’s social safety net in the next recession, or make heartbreaking cuts to education and health care that damage people’s lives.

Segregating tax revenue in separate accounts that are virtually untouchable for other uses during economic downturns is unsound public policy.

It’s also poor public policy to plant this ticking time bomb in the state constitution, where it cannot be easily or rapidly removed.

Negative Consequences

At this late stage, though, the lockbox amendment has momentum on its side.

The idea sounds sensible — until you start examining the consequences that could result during hard times.

Chief executives in the public sector — and in the private sector — need a full financial toolbox when revenues plunge and the bills come due.

Creating a transportation lockbox robs Maryland’s governor of a vital tool.

It could make matters much worse in a future recession.

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Sparrows Point Gold?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 8, 2014 — Today, it’s a forlorn hulk, a remnant of what once was the world’s largest steel-making plant, stretching four miles end-to-end on the Sparrows Point peninsula.

Abandoned Sparrows Point steel plant

Labor Day used to be special for the 30,000 people who worked at the Bethlehem Steel complex at its peak. They churned out cables for the George Washington Bridge, girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and steel for machinery and equipment that helped win World War II.

Then after 124 years of operation, it was over. The blast furnaces closed for good in June 2012, the property sold for a pittance to a liquidator.

Now there is reason for optimism “The Point” once again might be turned into economic gold.

Baltimore County and the Port of Baltimore have come up with pragmatic plans to redevelop this vast acreage — 5.3 square miles — into a major jobs generator.

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Even better, an investment group with deep pockets and strong local connections is negotiating to buy most of the Bethlehem Steel land in southeastern Baltimore County.

Jim Davis heads Redwood Capital Investment, which wants to become the new property owner. Davis’ name isn’t as familiar to readers as his cousin, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.

The two co-founded a job-staffing service in the 1980s, Aerotek, which morphed into the country’s largest privately held international staffing company — a $10 billion giant called Allegis Group with 12,000 employees and 120,000 contract workers. Its headquarters are in Hanover, not far from Arundel Mills.

Davis went on to purchase Erickson Retirement senior living communities and a host of other real estate and financial investments through Redwood. Now he is seeking most of the Sparrows Point acreage.

The Point’s Potential

If Davis follows the path laid out by a county task force and the Port of Baltimore, The Point some day will be humming with maritime crews, manufacturing and assembly workers, energy operators and distribution and freight employees.

It could be the most promising economic development story for Maryland in decades.

Nowhere in the Northeast is there such an enormous chunk of land already zoned for industrial use.

While 600 acres is heavily contaminated after a century of steel-making, some 2,400 acres won’t need much work to be placed on the market.

A good part of it overlooks the Chesapeake Bay — six linear miles of deep-water frontage perfectly suited for the port’s expansion needs.

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

If Baltimore is to take full advantage of a widened Panama Canal in 2016, it needs additional berths for the giant “post-Panamax” container ships (more than three football fields long) that require 50-foot channels and extra-long cranes.

Sparrows Point already has a 45-foot iron ore pier that could handle roll-on, roll-off cargo like automobiles and farm equipment; a second pier ideal for barges and smaller vessels; a short-line railroad that links to both CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, and lots and lots of cargo storage space.

Dredge Deposit Site

There’s also Coke Point, where port officials want to deposit tons of dredged harbor muck over the next decade or two. Once filled in, this “de-watered” land can be prepared for use as a state-of-the-art, deepwater super-cargo berth similar to Seagirt Marine Terminal, built on dredged material from construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

That’s just the start of the good news.

The task force, appointed by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, thinks some of the the peninsula is well suited for an energy park containing a natural gas plant, solar and wind farms, a biomass energy plant and a landfill gas plant.

This makes enormous sense. Central Maryland pays heavily to import electric power from out of state. It lacks sufficient transmission lines, too.

Neat Fit for Clean Energy

But The Point already has heavy-duty transmission lines that fed electricity to Beth Steel’s blast furnaces. Clean-energy production would be a nice fit, especially since the facilities wouldn’t be close to residential neighborhoods.

Other uses pinpointed by the task force include innovative manufacturing and value-added assembly for rail cars, ships, marine vehicles, specialty machinery and electric equipment; distribution and logistics parks, and “freight villages” offering warehouse space and service and equipment support.

Additionally, the task force noted a 400-acre quarry on the property soon will be ending its useful life. This opens the way for another “extraordinary vacant land-mass opportunity.”

Part of Beth Steel property

Part of Beth Steel property

It’s almost too good to be true.

And it may be. Davis has to finalize his group’s land purchase. Then he must negotiate terms with the state for the waterfront property. His company will be juggling many development balls simultaneously.

Of course, there’s the overhanging environmental concerns that first must be resolved.

Eventually, though, The Point might make a surprisingly strong comeback.

You couldn’t ask for a better located 5.3 square miles of land — much of it fronting deep water, practically on top of I-95 and the Baltimore Beltway, already connected to major railroads, a short drive from BWI Marshall Airport and at the mid-point of the East Coast’s massive megalopolis.

The State’s Role

It will take major investments from the state to give the Port of Baltimore these long-lasting advantages over other Atlantic ports of call. It’s not clear if the state’s next administration will be up to the task or if politics will intrude as the Transportation Department tries to find the money for this expensive project in its already stretched budget.

Given the recent debacle in finding a freight transfer site for CSX near the port, the MPA’s Sparrows Point expansion takes on heightened significance.

Environmental cleanups will cost someone a small fortune, though. It’s a key sticking point that must be resolved.

The county will play a role in smoothing the way for interested companies who see the vast potential of Sparrows Point. Baltimore City will have to make accommodations, too, especially in finding space to build a full interstate interchange at Broening Highway.

It’s too great an opportunity to let slip away, though.

For over 100 years, from 1889 until 2012, Sparrows Point was a beacon of jobs and success for the Greater Baltimore region. It can happen again — if there’s the will to make it happen.

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Re-fighting the Holocaust

By Barry Rascovar

March 17, 2014 – IT’S THE CLASSIC tug of war between emotion and logic, a crusade by legislators in Annapolis to enact punishment on a corporate Holocaust collaborator versus the cold reality that such a move would cost Maryland a new mass-transit line in suburban Washington.

So far, the emotion side of the human equation is winning.

Purple Line

The Purple Line

Lawmakers, especially those who are Jewish, are determined to right a terrible wrong by punishing the French national railroad, SNCF, and denying it any chance of gaining lucrative transportation contracts in Maryland unless it pays reparations to American Holocaust victims.

During World War II, the French railroad was seized by the Nazi regime, placed under German military commanders and forced to help transport 76,000 Jews and others to concentration camps.

Twenty-one hundred railroad workers who resisted or refused to assist the Nazis were executed – along with their families.

The French government pays reparations to Holocaust survivors, but only if they are French citizens or citizens of nearby countries.

SNCF

SNCF pays no reparations because it is 100 percent owned by the French government. It is considered an integral part of that government – similar to the U.S. Postal Service.

This tragic, 70-year-old tale of man’s inhumanity to man has re-surfaced at the Annapolis State House for the second time in four years.

MARC’s Saga

In 2011, the same group of lawyers pushing this year’s reparations bill conducted a six-month campaign against SNCF’s bid to run the state MARC commuter rail lines. This led to some of the nastiest hearings seen in the state capital. SNCF officials were verbally pummeled and abused by angry lawmakers. One hearing resembled a kangaroo court.

The net result: passage of a measure against SNCF that jeopardized federal funding for the MARC line because it illegally tainted the bidding process. Maryland got around that problem by fully funding aspects of the contract that previously had received federal dollars.

Then the state put the narrowed MARC contract out to bid. With so much negative pressure applied to the O’Malley administration, the outcome was never in doubt. SNCF lost the contract.

(Ironically, the contract winner — and the only other bidder — has a tainted history, too. Its parent company in Germany made munitions for the Nazi government during World War II and employed slave labor – mostly Jews – to aid the Nazi cause and reap a large profit. No stink was ever made about that horrific situation by state lawmakers.)

Reparations Bill

This year’s anti-SNCF effort seeks to force SNCF to pay reparations to Holocaust victims living in the United States. The bill makes it a prerequisite for bidding on the $2.3 billion Purple Line contract. SNCF is part of a consortium that wants to bid on this public-private partnership arrangement that could be worth $6 billion over the 35-year life of the contract.

Problems with the reparations bill are numerous. Under French law, SNCF can’t pay reparations, only the French government can. So the bill seeks to accomplish the impossible.

Such a bill violates international law because SNCF is part of the French government, not a private corporation. Maryland can’t demand reparations from an arm of a foreign nation. That’s the job of the U.S. State Department.

The bill also violates federal law by tainting the bidding process on federally funded programs. This bill clearly aims to punish SNCF by setting unrealistic barriers before the railroad can bid on the Purple Line contract.

Red-Headed Eskimo

That kind of one-company discrimination (a “red-headed Eskimo” bill in legislative lingo) is blatantly illegal in state and federal contracting law.

The state attorney general’s office has declared that to be the case. So has the Federal Rail Administration. So has the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Indeed, state DOT officials told lawmakers it would be impossible to win federal funds for the Purple Line if this bill is passed and signed into law.

That’s $900 million in cash, plus a $732 million low-interest federal loan, that would disappear. The Purple Line would vanish as a viable undertaking.

The bill’s House sponsor, Del. Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County, says he will revise the measure to get around these problems.

Del. Kirill Reznik

Del. Kirill Reznik

Surely the lawyers who have pursued SNCF for years will come up with a different approach, but any punitive action designed to force SNCF to pay reparations will be deemed discriminatory and illegal.

Trying to rectify a 70-year-old outrage isn’t realistic in this case.

The Nazis left SNCF in shambles after the war. No one profited from the transports. Besides, anyone at the railroad who had a role in the Nazi collaboration is dead or long since retired.

Today, the new SNCF is one of the world’s largest and most respected transportation systems. It does a considerable amount of business with Israel, which surely would never engage in commerce with a Holocaust enabler.

It’s also a big supporter of Holocaust remembrance programs and Holocaust museums. It has expressed regret and, given the historical record, asked for forgiveness for what happened.

SNCF’s Atonement

The Jewish community in France long ago accepted SNCF’s atonement, recognizing those who worked at the railroad during the war were forced to do so at the point of a gun.

Only the American Jewish community, egged on by lawyers, continues to target SNCF.

The Maryland Jewish community is at the head of this pack.

An SNCF subsidiary already operates Virginia’s commuter rail system that terminates in Union Station.

Last year, the subsidiary won a huge contract to manage Boston’s 660-mile commuter rail system – a contract that could be worth $4.3 billion over the next 12 years. In neither case did the Holocaust issue become a bone of contention.

When this controversy arose in 2011, the O’Malley administration and legislators found ways to implement the anti-SNCF bill without harming the state’s interests.

Forgo the Purple Line?

That looks impossible to achieve with the 2014 reparations bill.

Unless Montgomery County legislators are willing to forgo the Purple Line, there’s no way to go after SNCF without winding up on the wrong side of international law and anti-discrimination laws dealing with competitively bid contracts.

Any legislative actions that delay the bidding process for the Purple Line could result in a withdrawal of federal support. There are too many other rapid rail projects clamoring for those same federal dollars.

Negotiations are under way between France and the U.S. to hammer out a reparations deal for Holocaust victims who are American citizens. SNCF is not  part of those negotiations.

But by the time that deal is sealed, we may be into 2015 or 2016 – long after the bidding on the Purple Line concludes.

In this instance, logic needs to triumph over emotion in the legislative hallways of Annapolis.

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