Category Archives: transportation

Hogan’s Transportation Scam

By Adam Pagnucco.

A looming crisis threatens to devastate Maryland’s transportation program.  As much as one-third of the state’s transportation project spending could be at risk.  Key projects will be delayed, perhaps some indefinitely.  Is this because of the transportation transparency law that Governor Larry Hogan wants repealed?

No, not at all.  The real problem is something much more mundane, something Hogan does not want to talk about: a gaping budget hole.

The Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) is a segregated fund used to finance Maryland’s transportation programs.  Its largest sources of revenue are motor fuel taxes, titling taxes, registration fees and other Motor Vehicle Administration fees.  It also receives a substantial amount of federal funding.  Its proceeds are used to finance the Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) operating expenses as well as MDOT’s debt service and six-year capital program.  This means that funding for transportation capital projects is subject to variations in TTF revenue as well as changes in MDOT’s operating costs and debt service.

Page 43 of the Fiscal Briefing reviewed by the General Assembly last week shows a substantial deterioration in the TTF over the last year.  The briefing states:

The six-year State capital program in the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) fiscal 2017 through 2022 Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) forecast is $1.5 billion lower than in the prior year’s six-year program. Lower estimated revenue attainment, primarily motor vehicle fuel tax revenue, accounts for about half the decrease with higher projections for debt service and departmental operating expense spending accounting for the other half of the reduction in the capital program.

The briefing continues:

MDOT did not use the five-year average annual increase in operating expenses to calculate out-year operating expenses as directed in the 2016 Joint Chairmen’s Report. As a result, MDOT’s forecast likely understates operating expenses by $585 million over the forecast period, or just under 5%, and overstates the amount available for the capital program by $1.7 billion.

Translation: $1.5 billion in forecasted transportation spending, or 15% of the state’s six-year total, has disappeared in one year.  And the administration’s underestimating of MDOT’s operating expenses could cause the capital program to drop another $1.7 billion.

That’s right, folks: one-third of all funding for state transportation projects could be evaporating.

Now let’s be fair.  Governor Hogan does not control revenues for transportation, which are chiefly determined by the state of the economy.  Their substantial drop suggests that the economy is not doing as well as Hogan says it is.  The economy could get even worse if Republicans in Washington repeal the Affordable Care Act – something that would cost Maryland tens of thousands of jobs – and push through substantial cuts to federal agencies.  The Governor is also only in partial control of MDOT’s operating expenses, which include substantial amounts of materials and supplies purchased from private vendors.  Those expenses are squeezing money for transportation along with the revenue shortfalls.

But one thing the Governor does control is his own behavior.  A reasonable Governor acting in good faith would go to the General Assembly and say, “Look folks.  We have a problem here.  Let’s get together and figure out how to deal with it.”  That would be in line with the Governor’s regular calls for bipartisan cooperation.

Instead, the Governor has launched a Holy War against the General Assembly’s transportation transparency law, which merely requires him to justify the projects he chooses to fund.  He falsely claims that the law would require him to cancel projects when it does no such thing and even announced funding for one project a week after he said it would be killed.  Instead of working with members of the General Assembly to remedy a real budget problem that threatens transportation projects, he assaults them on Facebook about a fake problem that he has made up.

One of several Facebook posts the Governor is using to target state legislators.

It’s a scam, folks.  This Governor does not want to deal with an impending transportation crisis that is happening on his watch.  Instead, he is trying everything in his power to shift blame to Democrats in the state legislature.

Don’t fall for it.

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Is Larry Hogan Capable of Telling the Truth?

By Adam Pagnucco.

What’s the old saying about lying and telling the truth?  There are lots of variations, but most of them go something like this:

It’s easier to tell the truth than it is to lie.  That’s because when you tell the truth, there’s only one version to remember.  But when you lie, you have to keep all the details straight and say it the same way every time.  Otherwise, you’ll get caught!

Governor Larry Hogan has probably never heard of this.

As we have noted before, the Governor is waging an all-out campaign to repeal the General Assembly’s transportation project scoring law.  The law requires the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to score every major state transportation project on a variety of criteria, but gives the administration ultimate authority to fund projects of its choice regardless of their scores.  The Governor despises the law because it creates potential for embarrassment – he would have to publicly defend any decisions to fund low-scoring projects.  So he has falsely claimed that the law requires him to kill projects and said falsely that it was passed without hearings.  The Governor even released a list of projects that the law would allegedly kill even though the plain language of the law contradicts him.

One of the projects the Governor says will be killed is the widening of I-81 in Washington County.  His kill list describes it as “I-81 Reconstruction from West Virginia line to Pennsylvania line.”

A week after saying that I-81 and dozens of other projects would be killed, the Governor showed up in Hagerstown to announce funding for – you guessed it – I-81 widening.  The Hagerstown Herald-Mail reported:

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan came to Hagerstown bearing gifts on Thursday, announcing more than $115 million in funding commitments for local and regional projects.

The largest chunk, $105 million, is for the first phase of widening of Interstate 81, which recently got underway to widen the heavily-traveled interstate to six lanes from the West Virginia line to Md. 63 near Williamsport.

The first phase of work is from U.S. 11 in West Virginia to Md. 63, including the Potomac River bridges in between…

Another $5 million has been budgeted for design work for the second phase of I-81 widening, Hogan said, allowing the project to progress north to the Interstate 70 interchange.

The Governor’s office issued a press statement reiterating that work on I-81 would proceed.  Neither the Herald-Mail article nor the press statement noted that the Governor had already said that I-81 would be killed by the transportation scoring law.  There were no caveats in the article or the press statement such as “I-81 will proceed so long as the scoring law is repealed.”  Let’s note that the project kill list and the press statement about I-81 were issued only EIGHT DAYS APART.

In which of two alternate realities does the Governor live?  The one in which a major transportation project is killed by a new law?  Or the one in which the project proceeds without obstruction?  It seems to vary by the day.

This is no longer about transportation policy, folks.  You can’t rant and rave at a press conference that a project is going to be killed and then show up a week later like Santa Claus to announce that it’s going to be built.  Reasonable, sane and trustworthy people don’t behave like that regardless of their political beliefs.  That raises a critical question.

Is Larry Hogan capable of telling the truth?

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Governor Trump

By Adam Pagnucco.

One of the reasons why Donald Trump was elected President is that he made things up out of thin air and the press, for the most part, let him get away with it.  Now Governor Larry Hogan is doing the same thing.  And so far, it’s working.

We refer of course to the Governor’s all-out campaign to repeal this year’s transportation transparency law.  The law, passed over the Governor’s veto, would require the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to rank transportation projects according to a variety of numerical criteria to bring transparency into what has been an opaque funding process.  The Governor claims that it would require him to kill most state transportation projects.  But in fact, the plain language of the law lets the Governor have final say over which projects get funded.  It states, “Nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

So just like Trump, the Governor is making things up and trotting them out to the press.  How did the press react?  Erin Cox of the Baltimore Sun got the facts right, quoting both the law’s language and an advisory letter from the Attorney General’s office to demonstrate that Hogan is wrong.  A reader had to review the article carefully to glean these things, however, as it also included lots of back-and-forth between politicians.  The Washington Post and the Capital Gazette also quoted the law’s language, though only in passing.

Other press outlets got suckered.  The Hagerstown Herald-Mail, Frederick News-Post, Ocean City Today, WMAR (Baltimore), WJLA (Washington), Bethesda Magazine, Afro-American, WMDT, WTOP and Montgomery Community Media (MCM) never mention what the law actually says, depicting the issue as a he-said-she-said dispute between politicians.  Ocean City Today, WJLA and WMDT never bothered to quote any Democrats, giving the Governor free rein.  WJLA, WMAR, MCM and the Afro-American stated falsely that certain transportation projects either “were,” “will be” or “have been” canceled.  Again, the law says no such thing and a simple fact-check could have uncovered that.

The real story here is that one side is accurately characterizing state law and the other side is making stuff up.  No one in the press wrote that story.

Even more incredibly, the Governor said in his press conference about the law that the General Assembly “rammed it through without hearings or any public input.”  You can see that in the video below at the -10:40 mark.

In fact, video of the hearings in both the Senate and the House are available on the General Assembly’s website.  Pete Rahn, the Governor’s Secretary of Transportation, attended both.  This is a pants-on-fire lie that no press outlet exposed.

rahn-testimony

Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn testifying at the Senate hearing that Governor Hogan says never happened.

For a person who is known as not being a fan of Donald Trump, the Governor is remarkably quick to embrace his tactics: make stuff up, ignore the truth and bully anyone who disagrees.  Most of the press is letting him get away with it.

Will the Democrats?

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Larry Hogan’s Alternate Reality

By Adam Pagnucco.

Everyone knows that elected officials sometimes disagree on issues.  They may have differences of philosophy or values.  They may emphasize different sets of conflicting data.  They may prioritize one thing over another.  But how many of them actually make stuff up and use that as a basis for policy arguments?

One does.  His name is Larry Hogan.

The Governor’s target is a law passed by the General Assembly over his veto known as the Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act of 2016.  The law was intended to open up the opaque process used by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to decide which transportation projects to fund in the state’s capital budget.  The law requires MDOT to use a scoring procedure to evaluate future proposed major projects using measurements of safety and security, system preservation, quality of service, environmental stewardship, community vitality, economic prosperity, equitable access, cost effectiveness and local jurisdiction priorities.  The score of each project included in MDOT’s capital budget would be released publicly.  But the law makes clear that the scores themselves would not determine a project’s fate.  MDOT would have the final say over which ones get funded.  The law says explicitly that “the Department may include in the Consolidated Transportation Program a major capital transportation project with a lower score over a major capital transportation project with a higher score if it provides in writing a rational basis for the decision.”  The law also says, “Nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

Sounds harmless, yeah?  Not to Governor Hogan.  He is calling the law “the Road Kill Bill” and has released a huge list of transportation projects it would allegedly cancel.  The Governor said in a public statement that the law was a “disastrous bill which will absolutely be responsible for the elimination of nearly all of the most important transportation priorities in every single jurisdiction all across the state… It will wreak havoc on the entire state transportation system and usurp important authority away from local governments and away from the executive branch of state government, giving authority instead to lobbyists and special interest groups.”  He has launched a fierce social media campaign to repeal it.

And yet the plain language of the law itself would not kill any transportation projects.  Not a single one.

Think that’s bad enough?  It’s even worse.  One of the projects the Governor says the law would kill is the Watkins Mill/I-270 interchange in Gaithersburg.  This is a top priority for MoCo’s state legislators and was a significant reason for their support of a 2013 transportation funding increase.  And yet the Hogan administration indefinitely postponed it and later mulled cutting exit ramps to save money.  Only after the MoCo delegation introduced legislation to mandate funding the project did MDOT relent and reluctantly put it back on track.  And now the Governor is falsely blaming the transportation scoring law for killing a project that his own administration tried to kill!

Folks, what we have here is not a failure to communicate.  It is a failure to live in reality.  The Governor’s attacks on this law are contradicted by the plain language of the law itself.  It does not kill ANY projects.  In fact, it explicitly preserves MDOT’s ability to decide which projects get funded.  This dispute is not about killing projects at all.  What it’s really about is that the Governor can’t stand any law that subjects his decisions to public scrutiny.  And this concept is so alien to him that he is willing to make false statements in public about what the law actually does.  This is not a matter of right vs left or Democrats vs Republicans.  It’s a matter of making stuff up to justify what you want.

Now what other soon-to-be GOP officeholder does this remind you of?

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Are Transit “Advocates” Their Own Worst Enemy?

Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert’s went off on Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn in a recent blog post, accusing him of wanting to “slash and burn” WMATA:

Meanwhile, Pete Rahn, the new Maryland transportation secretary who insists he’s not a “highway guy,” wants to cut costs much more deeply. He wants WMATA to completely shelve any talk about expanding the system or even increasing the number of eight-car trains.

Only in the Greater Greater Washington bubble is failing to build new lines or stations for Metro a “slash and burn” approach or cutting costs. Alpert continues:

Rahn told Hauslohner and McCartney that “Discussions of expansion have to be deferred for maintenance, and it means saying ‘no’ to some popular things until [Metro] has addressed throughout its system the issues of performance and safety.”

While maintenance is extremely important, it’s also dangerous to completely ignore anything else. While Metrorail ridership has declined slightly, the overall trend is toward hitting capacity ceilings—not to mention the Blue Line, which is suffering right now.

People who ride Metro with any frequency are going to view Rahn’s  focus on getting the system working again as just plain common sense. Yesterday’s shutdown of the Bethesda Metro Station due to a lack of working escalators only emphasized the point if endless single tracking hadn’t already.

Alpert wants to call the stagnation in Metro ridership a blip but it has been going down since 2009. I bet that would change if the system worked better. At that point, I’d be glad to push for more eight-car trains–and so would the public and maybe Rahn.

Alpert tops it off with an out-of-touch analogy:

Rahn would certainly not say that Maryland should cancel any plans for even the smallest local road capacity increase project until every road and bridge is in tip-top shape and nobody ever dies on the roads, period.

Forehead hits keyboard.

Metro is not falling just short of “tip-top shape.” It’s seen as failing to do its job. For public transit to attract riders and provide the economic and transportation benefits, it has to be dependable. And Metro just isn’t anymore.

Indeed, Rahn’s notion that the financial and operational mismanagement must end before expanding the system will strike many as the arrival of rational voice. As the Washington Post pointed out, Metro didn’t even manage to spend its capital budget last year:

Rahn complained that Metro hasn’t been spending all of the money it has available to buy or modernize equipment while saying it needs more money.

Last year, Metro failed to spend $207 million, or 21 percent, of its 2014 capital budget that was meant to go toward maintenance, program management and vehicles, among other projects. According to the transit authority’s latest figures, Metro had only spent about 26 percent of this year’s capital budget by the time it was midway through the fiscal year.

Moreover, even when they manage to spend it, there are no often no real improvements. For example, little progress has been made on the escalator front with many breaking down soon after being rebuilt.

Echoing Alpert’s critique of Rahn for wanting to get a handle on costs and fix the system we have seems an excellent way to assure that approval ratings for Rahn’s boss, Gov. Larry Hogan, go up and he wins reelection in 2018.

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Reporters v. Data: Millennials Edition

On March 29, the Washington Post published yet another of many stories on how millennials love the city and hate the suburbs:

Transit-centric millennials . . . who were born between 1980 and the early 2000s, are causing angst in traditionally car-dominant suburbs such as Montgomery County. Suburbs nationwide have long lured companies — and the high-skilled workers they seek to attract — with good schools, relatively low crime and spacious corporate campuses surrounded by vast parking lots near major highways.

A realization is growing among those communities’ business and civic leaders that the traditional suburban brand needs an overhaul.

The story had several anecdotes but had no actual data to support its conclusion that people are no longer moving to the suburbs. One reason for that omission is that it isn’t true, as reported on FiveThirtyEight:

According to U.S. Census Bureau data released this week, 529,000 Americans ages 25 to 29 moved from cities out to the suburbs in 2014; only 426,000 moved in the other direction. Among younger millennials, those in their early 20s, the trend was even starker: 721,000 moved out of the city, compared with 554,000 who moved in.1 Somewhat more people in both age groups currently live in the suburbs than in the city.

Indeed, for all the talk of the rebirth of American cities, the draw of the suburbs remains powerful. Across all ages, races, incomes and education groups, more Americans are still moving out of cities than in. (Urban populations are still growing, but because of births and immigration, not internal migration.)

There have been some important changes but they’re about delaying moves to the suburbs

The common narrative isn’t entirely wrong about the long-term trend lines. Millennials are moving to the suburbs at a much lower rate than past generations did at the same age. In the mid-1990s, people ages 25 to 29 were twice as likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa. Today, they’re only about a quarter more likely. But even that slowdown appears to be mostly about people delaying their move to the suburbs, not forgoing it entirely. Today’s 30- to 44-year-olds are actually heading for the suburbs at a significantly faster rate than in the 1990s.

And the move to the suburbs isn’t being driven by moves to new urban areas like Bethesda and Silver Spring. The home with a yard for the kids to play remains popular. Indeed, the exurbs are still the fastest growing areas:

But a survey released earlier this year found that most millennials still want a traditional suburban experience, complete with big single-family homes. The American Community Survey, which provides a more granular look than the data released this week, tells much the same story, said Jed Kolko, chief economist of the real estate site Trulia.

“The fastest population growth right now is in the lowest-density neighborhoods, the suburb-iest suburbs,” Kolko said.

FiveThirtyEight hypothesizes why this story has gained traction even though it’s not true:

So why has the “city-loving millennials” story gained so much traction? Kolko has a theory: As American cities have become safer and more expensive, they have become increasingly dominated by the affluent and well-educated — exactly the people who drive the media narrative.

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Leaping Forward with Public Transit

leapThe Washington Post has a fascinating article on how technology is ripe to disrupt public transport just like it did for taxis with the arrival of Uber and Lyft:

The new venture-backed private transportation service Leap began offering rides in San Francisco last week in a swanky shuttle meant to feel “more like a living room than a bus.” A ride with the service, which costs $6 one-way or $5 in bulk, comes with WiFi, USB ports, a laptop bar and locally made pressed juices (for sale on board, that is).

Public transit is ripe for disruption — that’s why investors are backing these ideas. If you were to look around any city and try to identify a problem in need of lucrative new solutions that emerging technology might provide, the dreaded commute is an obvious one. Public transit can be inefficient, unpredictable, slow, crowded, or on its worse days downright broken. Transit needs a shakeup.

The fear is that new service would be only for the wealthy. From Anacostia, current Metro peak fares to Farragut West are $2.50, and $5.00 per day, probably cheaper than Leap. On the other hand, peak fare from Shady Grove to Metro Center is already $5.90 each way during peak hours. If you need to park, the daily cost rises to $16.90. So the difference in price in our area is cloudy, especially if competition enters into the game.

Government heavily subsidizes government-provided public transit and could subsidize rides for shuttles. Except that these subsidies could be targeted directly a lower income riders rather than to everyone regardless of income. Considering the cost of the DC Streetcar, Purple Line, and Baltimore Red Line, it would a lot cheaper.

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Moving Forward on Public Transit

WMATA_Metro

Making This Work Should Be Our #1 Priority

In a series of posts, I’ve outlined how the major light-rail and streetcar projects are in deep trouble and why. Today’s final post completes the more recent portion of the series on what we should do to spend smart to produce workable, effective transit.

Fix Metro

Members of the Maryland General Assembly have rightly come to the conclusion that they have had enough of the failing WMATA status quo and want to grapple in a serious way with the issue. Fixing the Metro system should be our #1 transit priority because it remains the lungs of the region’s public transit network. We need a serious assessment of how to turn the corner on this one because the problems have only been getting worse. MTA also has major problems that need attention and merits more oversight.

Reorganize Existing Bus Lines

I love solutions that don’t cost any money. This isn’t a case of getting something for nothing (that just doesn’t happen) but getting a lot more out of our existing budget. Houston just showed the way by reorganizing its bus routes in a smart way:

The old system, like many bus routes in the United States, expended a lot of resources on very low-ridership routes for the sake of saying there’s “a bus that goes there.” The new plan says that the focus should be to provide reasonably frequent service on routes where reasonably frequent service will attract riders. That does mean that some people are further than ever from a transit stop. But it means that many more Houstonians will find themselves near a useful transit stop.

Just check out the before and after maps. I’ve often heard advocates of light-rail claim that we need it because there is no bus route that does not connect place A to place B. But this is, after all, an easily solvable problem without building light rail. In Houston, the difference is amazing and it didn’t cost the city any more money. Now that’s smart growth.

Bus-Rapid Transit

Bus-rapid transit (BRT) has real cost-benefit advantages over other more expensive modes. You can build an equivalent mode of transit at a far cheaper price. Montgomery County has already moved forward tentatively in this area. I hope they will continue.

Build Only What We Can Afford to Maintain

The key lesson from Metro is that transit systems take a lot of money to operate and to maintain. Governing recently highlighted an even more disastrous example from the Boston area. Though Boston is a slow-growing area, it embarked on very fast paced transit growth that it could not afford either to build or to maintain. Beyond the system’s collapse this winter:

Today the MBTA owes nearly $9 billion in debt and interest, which translates into more than one-quarter of its operating revenue going to debt service. And since money that should have funded maintenance had to be diverted to the legally mandated expansions, the system faces an estimated $5 billion maintenance backlog.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build anything. It means that we need to spend smart because money is always tight and we need to build future operation and maintenance costs into the plan before we begin construction.

Final Word

The point of this series was not just to discuss how and why we arrived in our current cul-de-sac of overly expensive projects but how we can get out of it through transit that provide more in the way of transit and economic benefits at a much lower cost and will be more sustainable over the long term.

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MTA Financial Fail

This one is going to cost us way more than Charlie’s proverbial nickel. The Baltimore Sun reports:

The Maryland Transit Administration failed to verify the accuracy of millions of dollars in contractor-submitted architectural and engineering costs for the Red and Purple light rail lines, according to a state audit released Monday.

The unverified labor bills from four contractor groups hired to work on the two pending transit lines, scheduled for Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, respectively, account for or relate to $232.8 million in overall costs under the multibillion-dollar projects, the audit found.

And we ought to be concerned that the accuracy of expenditures were not verified because:

The joint ventures were originally awarded contracts not to exceed $280 million, but the value of those contracts was increased in July 2013 to $547.1 million, the audit found.

The lack of checks on expenditures has led to waste such as:

• $10 million in overpayments to Mobility Paratransit Program vendors for fuel.

• Nearly $500,000 in payments of excise tax on fuel that the agency is exempt from paying.

This no worries attitude is especially shocking because one of the major firms involved in the project–Parsons Brinckerhoff–also played a key role in designing the fiasco known as the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Failing Disabled Marylanders

The audit further legitimated claims by disability rights advocates that MTA is failing them::

The audit also found the agency failed to properly oversee eligibility for its mobility program, something advocates for people with disabilities also alleged in a lawsuit recently filed against the agency.

MTA does not contest the audit’s results.

Accountability

Who in MTA is responsible? Will anyone be held accountable for this two-fold scandal–not just waste of public funds but failure even to keep track of how they are being spent?

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Legislators Working to Make Metro Better

firemen in metroJust More Media Hysteria, So Chillax

Denial from Greater Greater Washington

Greater Greater Washington’s response to the series of problems with both the Metro and the DC streetcar was to blame “media hysteria” and remind us that transit is still safer than driving. So pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Better Response from the General Assembly

Fortunately, like the public they represent, legislators in the General Assembly think the continuing rot in Metro not only needs to be stopped but reversed. I don’t think this weekend’s repeated problems will persuade them otherwise.

Freshmen Del. Marc Korman (D-16) and Del. Erek Barron (D-24) have real interest in transit issues and have organized an informal Metro working group as part of an effort to figure out how to fix WMATA and exert more effective pressure to do so.

Special kudos to Del. Tawanna Gaines (D-22) who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Transportation for supporting the effort. It’s terrific to see leaders like Del. Gaines working to support reform efforts.

The people involved realize that these are long-term problems with no quick fix. Hopefully, they can (1) improve oversight of Metro, (2) get Metro to address some specific problems, and (3) start to address some of the central questions around WMATA’s management and funding.

Fortunately, the interest in these questions extends even beyond the Metro area. Great to hear that Del. Brooke Lierman (D-46) and Del. Bob Flanagan (R-9B) joined many legislators from Montgomery and Prince George’s to attend the group meetings. Del. Flanagan was a former Secretary of Transportation in the Ehrlich administration.

While I look forward to seeing the group’s action plan as they learn more about WMATA, it is a good start that those involved know there are serious problems and want to figure out how to fix them in a more systematic, effective way.

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