Tag Archives: mass transit

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.

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Hogan’s Hopes for Bus Transit

By Barry Rascovar

October 26, 2015 – Let’s take Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., at his word: He sincerely wants to make Baltimore’s inadequate bus transportation system better.

He’s come up with a plan to achieve that goal, too.

Hogan's Hopes for Bus Transit

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., and a mock-up of a CityLink bus he wants to bring to Baltimore.

The odds, though, are stacked against him.

He’s given himself an unrealistically short time frame (June, 2017) to totally revamp Baltimore’s complex bus network.

He’s underestimated the cost ($135 million) of pulling off such a massive turnaround.

He’s got no support from key elected local executives.

Is It Possible?

Much of what he calls for in his plan may not be feasible or sensible. It also might make traffic gridlock worse rather than better.

He ignores the past sensitivity of Baltimore’s bus riders to major route changes. Resistance to his plan could be strenuous among those who are inconvenienced or will lose access to existing jobs via bus routes being eliminated.

If, indeed, Hogan intends to shrink Baltimore’s bus system to a dozen color-coded routes, his approach could well be “transformative” in shrinking the state’s operating costs. It might make the system less accessible for Baltimoreans, too.

We may not get a good handle on the viability and pros and cons of Hogan’s bus initiative until the state Department of Legislative Services gives the plan a thorough analysis early next year.

Going Negative

As is his pattern, Hogan in his announcement excoriated Baltimore’s current transit system in sweeping, negative language. He once again pilloried the rail transit Red Line he killed earlier this year with hot rhetoric that bears little relationship to the facts.

Once again, he portrayed his Republican administration riding to the rescue of a mismanaged Democratic city with “transformative” changes.

This time, though, Hogan has got to deliver a vastly improved bus system. Executing his plan may not be as easy as he made it appear in his announcement.

Exactly how will Hogan pull off this transformation without cooperation from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over the next 13 months? The two are barely civil and don’t see eye to eye on Baltimore’s people-mover needs.

Exactly which north-south and east-west roads does Hogan intend to use for his dedicated, separated bus-only lanes? There are no good options, especially downtown.

Such a move would squeeze existing traffic into fewer lanes, making rush hours more of a daily nightmare. Besides, Hogan needs the city to bless such an undertaking, which doesn’t seem likely given the uproar and traffic mess that could result.

Changing Signals

Exactly how is Hogan going to implement computerized bus signalization to turn red lights green on his 12 new, color-coded bus routes?

Every light change commanded by a bus driver will exacerbate traffic tie-ups on the cross street. What happens when buses going north-south and east-west hit the same downtown intersection at the same time in rush hour?

There’s a serious question whether Hogan’s signal-change idea will even do much to cut travel times. It sounds good on paper but in practice it doesn’t work well. The state and city have been trying to do this along the light-rail route on Howard Street for several decades with minimal success.

Hogan will get little opposition and some cheers for other parts of his plan, such as moving bus routes closer to suburban job centers; extending light-rail hours on Sunday; putting more focus on “last mile” problems for urban dwellers trying to reach their jobs in the suburbs; creating multi-modal transit hubs, and giving some financial support to Baltimore’s popular, free Charm City Circulator.

It’s now up to Hogan to make his bus plan reality.

Given the last Republican governor’s muddled attempt to markedly improve Baltimore bus service, there’s considerable room for skepticism that Hogan can pull it off.

Here’s hoping he succeeds. The city needs something to go right for a change.

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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: 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.

Hogan’s Unappetizing Choices

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 5, 2015 — The New Year belongs to the victors, like Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr. But reality will set in quickly once hard, unappetizing choices pit campaign pledges against on-the-ground reality.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

Here are some examples:

RED LINE/PURPLE LINE

During the campaign, Hogan criticized both mass transit lines as too expensive for Maryland’s financial situation.

He said the money would be better spent on roads, not rapid rail.

At the same time, Hogan pounded away at the need for aggressive job and business creation. He pledged to energize the state’s lackluster economic development effort.

Killing the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs would, indeed, save lots of money for Maryland — $1.035 billion on the Red Line and $637 million on the Purple Line.

But not a penny of the savings will help Hogan close the $1 billion general fund budget deficit staring him in the face. Transportation funds are segregated in a separate account.

Even worse, the savings probably wouldn’t pay for much in the way of local highways work, either. That’s because the state would only be paying one-sixth (or possibly less) of the cost each year during the lengthy construction stage.

Compounding matters, revenue estimates for transportation taxes are proving overly optimistic, leaving a $441 million hole in the state’s six-year transportation plan.

Killing the Red and Purple lines would close that gap, but what’s left wouldn’t have much of an impact on local road-building when spread over six years, plus inflation.

The demise of Maryland’s two major transit projects, meanwhile, would be devastating for transportation contractors and the thousands of workers who wouldn’t be employed building the two rail lines.

That hurts Maryland’s jobless rate and the state’s economic growth.

So killing the two projects outright may not be the smartest step.

Baltimore badly needs the Red Line to connect its inadequate transit system and get low-income city workers to job sites. The Purple Line is crucial for near-the-beltway, lower-income neighborhoods and for lessening the crunch in rush hours on the Capital Beltway.

Then there are the political ramifications.

Kill the two transit lines and the new governor immediately makes enemies of the three largest delegations in the Maryland General Assembly — Baltimore, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County.

Together, the three have enough votes to make life miserable for Hogan.

There’s got to be a middle-ground way, which would involve a construction delay while engineers search for cost-effective options to lower the price tag for the two rail routes.

When the Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River near National Harbor was reconstructed, the cost soared out of sight. Only after an innovative project engineer, Tom Mohler (now a partner with RK&K Engineers in Baltimore) devised a cheaper approach — chopping the massive project into smaller chunks — did the price tag diminish enough for Maryland, Virginia and the District to proceed with construction.

That’s what may have to take place on the two expensive mass transit routes, too.

SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION

Hogan faces a huge budget deficit, which may require a deep cut in school construction funding, from the $300 million level favored by the O’Malley administration to the $200 million level.

The problem is that many of the counties where Hogan was wildly popular are the very counties lobbying the state for more new-school dollars to handle a surge in students.

Hogan might end up disappointing the very voters who put him in office.

Clearly the state’s budget hole, plus the state’s over-reliance on floating bonds, call for reductions in spending.

School construction sticks out like a sore thumb.

Hogan might attempt to do more with less — by putting the state’s money into renovations of existing schools instead of costly new construction. He may be able to stretch fewer dollars further.

But it won’t make all his supporters happy, especially those with kids attending overcrowded public schools.

FILM TAX CREDIT

Maryland’s generosity toward the film industry led two TV production companies in recent years to work in the state on “Veep” and “House of Cards.”

Since 2012, this has cost Maryland taxpayers $62.5 million in tax credits to the production companies.

Yet it has put hundreds of skilled laborers to work behind the scenes: designing sets, arranging the lighting, working on the sound and engineering crews, preparing the costumes and working as extras. Hundreds more have been hired locally to play roles in the TV series.

If the tax credit is killed, one of the biggest losers would be Harford County, which, ironically, gave Hogan an overwhelming victory in November.

The Department of Legislative Services claims the film tax credit has generated little in the way of a return on the state’s investment, but the DLS may have been looking at the wrong indicators.

As an economic development tool, the tax credit is nurturing a local film industry. It is responsible for the evolution of a solid core of high-quality, skilled craftsmen and artists — just the right ingredients for luring more film crews to Maryland.

Kill the film tax credit and you likely kill any chance of Maryland retaining “Veep” and “House of Cards.” Hogan would be chopping off any possibility of Maryland gaining a reputation in Hollywood as a welcoming place for film production.

For a governor promising to grow jobs and the state economy, Hogan would be sending the wrong signal by taking an ax to the film tax credit.

Such unappetizing choices put him in a bind.

Hogan must find a way to balance the state’s books while not forsaking his pledge to jump-start Maryland’s quest for jobs and business — while at the same time not alienating his supporters or powerful groups in the legislature that could potentially subvert his agenda.

It won’t be easy.

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Barry Rascovar writes a blog, www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

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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Maglev: An Impossible Dream?

By Barry Rascovar

December 2, 2013 — MAGLEV IS BACK. So run for the hills.

Maglev Train in China
Maglev in China

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new coalition of Political Influentials is lobbying for this ultra-expensive, ultra-high-speed rail system.

How expensive?

Let’s start at $15 billion, or more, just for a magnetic levitation route, underground, from Washington to Baltimore — 39 miles.

Yes, you could make the trip between the two cities in 15 minutes. Yes, it would transform commuting.

Just imagine the ticket prices.

Maglev in Asia

In Shanghai, which has one of the only two commercially operating maglev routes in the world (the other is in Aichi, Japan), a one-way ticket from the airport to the outskirts of that mega-city costs a heavily subsidized $8.14 — and then you’ve got to catch a cab or light-rail train to downtown.

That line is considered a flop.

Construction costs on a Washington-to-New York route could top $600 billion, but at least you’d be able to reach the Big Apple in an hour — about the same as a plane flight.

It’s ridiculous pie-in-the-sky rambling from lobbyists looking for a gigantic federal handout that isn’t going to happen.

We’ve heard this tune before.

Past and Future Maglev Plans

The Abell Foundation was a big maglev booster, proposing a line from Camden Yards to Union Station at a cost of $5.1 billion (in 2007 dollars).

That plan went nowhere in the halls of Congress.

Japan is eager to tout a maglev line in the U.S. for the Northeast Corridor.

Its government is building a $100 billion long-distance maglev route over the next 15 years from Tokyo to Osaka. This could turn into a white elephant unless Japan persuades other countries to build similar lines that would bring down construction costs.

Maglev in Japan

Maglev in Japan

There’s no doubt maglev would be beneficial.

Its trains are propelled by superconducting magnets, thus reducing friction and allowing for super-high speeds of up to 300-plus miles an hour.

There’s virtually no noise. Trains can operates in all kinds of weather.

But, oh, the price tag.

Amtrak wants to build its own high-speed train route from D.C. to the Big Apple. Travel time would be 94 minutes. All it would cost is $151 billion.

Given this country’s historic parsimony toward mass transit, neither Amtrak’s plans nor the maglev group’s plans are going to get traction in Washington.

A Private-Sector Solution

Only through private-sector development will maglev happen in the U.S. of A.

Is there an Elon Musk * out there eager to put up a dozen or so billion dollars to build a magnetic levitation route?

Quick: Call Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Google co-founder (and University of Maryland alum) Sergei Brin. * *

That’s the only way this pipe dream is ever going to turn into an American reality.

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* Billionaire refresher 1: Elon Musk is founder of Pay Pal, Tesla Motors (electric cars) and Space X, (space-launch vehicles). Net worth: $6.4 billion. He’s also working on  a “hyperloop” — a subsonic air travel machine in a partial vacuum that would operate between the outskirts of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Cost: $6 billion.

* * Billionaire refresher 2: Bill Gates (net worth: $72 billion), Warren Buffett (net worth: $59 billion), Sergei Brin (net worth: $25 billion)

( Read all of Barry Rascovar’s columns at this website, www.politicalmaryland.com )