Category Archives: transportation

How Mike Miller Helped Save the Purple Line

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Purple Line is the subject of much drama today, but the truth is that the project has always been wrapped in drama and almost died several times. Indeed, it could have met its end back in 2013. The fact that it survived was a near miracle, and that is in part because of one critical person: retiring Senator Mike Miller. For the first time ever, here is the untold story of how Mike Miller helped save the Purple Line.

As the summer of 2013 approached, the Purple Line was facing a critical deadline: the state had to show the federal government that it could afford its share of the rail line’s cost to be eligible for nearly a billion dollars in federal funding. The problem was that the state didn’t have the money. Depleted by revenue declines during the Great Recession, the state’s transportation trust fund was broke. Without new money, we could never show the federal government that we could meet our part of the cost. Baltimore’s Red Line had the same problem. With no adequate state funding, the feds were bound to send their money to other projects around the country. Both the Purple Line and the Red Line would then die.

A group of advocates then put together a coalition called Get Maryland Moving to lobby for new transportation revenues. Our members included smart growth groups, environmentalists, business organizations and local governments from all over the state. We had a website, social media, press hits, lobbying, day-to-day coordination and all the accoutrements of a mass campaign, all thrown together in a few weeks. We wanted the Purple Line and the Red Line, but we understood that the rest of the state needed their projects too. Our approach was to get enough money for everyone because that was the only way new funding would pass.

Right off the bat, my contacts in the General Assembly told me that a transportation revenue increase was dead on arrival. The legislature had passed a variety of tax increases in the 2007 special session, leading to GOP gains in the House of Delegates in the following election. Nevertheless, the Democrats raised the income tax in 2012. Developer Larry Hogan, who had served in the administration of GOP Governor Bob Ehrlich, had founded Change Maryland largely on the tax issue and was a year and a half away from becoming governor. Democratic state legislators conceded privately that more transportation money was necessary, especially for the Red Line and the Purple Line, but they were extremely reluctant to raise taxes again.

We were underdogs but we had two aces in the hole.

Senate President Mike Miller

Miller seemed like an unlikely ally for MoCo as he had masterminded both an income tax increase and a teacher pension shift the year before, both of which disproportionately crushed the county. But Miller was an absolute warrior on the issue of transportation funding. He knew that the entire state had massive infrastructure needs that had no chance of getting built without more money. Ever since the state’s last gas tax hike in 1992, Miller had never stopped talking about transportation funding. As far back as 1997, Miller told the Baltimore Sun: “The money for these projects doesn’t come out of the sky… It’s going to take a tax increase. It’s a bad word, but it’s got to happen.” In 2008, Miller told me in an interview that he had pushed for a 12-cent gas tax increase, declaring, “We need to move forward as quickly as we can on mass transit.”

Miller never gave up when he cared about an issue, and he cared a lot about transportation funding. He also had no fear of Governor Martin O’Malley, who was reluctant to get out front on a revenue increase that voters opposed. In January, Miller introduced his own revenue bill and put O’Malley on the spot, telling the Washington Post, “This needs to be an initiative by the governor… It doesn’t poll well, but that’s what leadership is all about.”

To hell with the naysayers. We had Mike Miller on our side. That meant we had a shot.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is now known primarily for his gifts scandal in 2014, which led to a conviction that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But before that, McDonnell was a rising star in the national GOP who seemed to be going places. As unlikely as it seems now, in the world of 2013, it was not out of the realm of possibility that both McDonnell and O’Malley would someday be on the presidential tickets of their respective political parties.

In his final year in office, McDonnell put together a giant transportation funding bill, showing a level of boldness that contrasted with the reticence of his rival across the Potomac. Annapolis felt the pressure. O’Malley could not be seen as failing on transportation while McDonnell got a new funding package through a state legislature controlled by Republicans. And McDonnell did just that, scoring a huge success in late February as bipartisan majorities passed his multi-billion dollar transportation bill. McDonnell’s success in Virginia along with Miller’s constant urging prompted O’Malley to get off the bench, as he finally sent over an administration bill in early March. The train was starting to move.

But there was one more problem: Baltimore’s lawmakers were resisting the bill. We thought that the prospect of funding the Red Line gave them reason enough to support it. But some city legislators were indifferent to the Red Line, others were outright opposed, and one even told one of our organizers that the state would build it even without new money because “they owe it to us.” The city wanted something different: state school construction money to fix their aging schools. That could have meant the end of transportation funding right there as not everyone was enthralled with the idea of sending more money to Baltimore. And without the city’s votes, our bill would have died.

So state leaders cut a deal with the city: they would get a billion dollars in school construction money, financed with lottery proceeds, in return for voting for the transportation bill. The city got a great deal but the Washington suburbs got the Purple Line. (Hogan canceled the Red Line two years later, causing city leaders to cry injustice on behalf of a project that many of them never truly wanted.) O’Malley’s bill was amended and passed, generating hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation and keeping the Purple Line alive.

Raising transportation revenue required a team effort. Local governments, advocacy groups, the business community and key elected officials all played a part. But Mike Miller was absolutely critical to the effort. He was the first powerful state leader out of the box on the issue. He had talked about the necessity of raising money for transportation projects for years and years while many other politicians cowered under their desks. He wouldn’t let it go and he publicly took on a sitting governor from his own party to get the money. Having Miller in our corner gave us a fighting chance even when it looked like we would lose. When it was time to cut the final deal, we knew that he had both the desire and the capability to work with others and get it done. And he did. To this day, I believe the Purple Line wouldn’t have survived without him.

Here’s an idea. When the Purple Line opens, the state should name its station on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus for Miller. He loves the university, from which he graduated with two degrees, and he has done as much for the state’s infrastructure as any other Marylander. If anyone deserves recognition of this kind, it is surely Mike Miller.

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Purple Line Drowns Maryland in Red Ink

Most Maryland pols are heavily invested in the Purple Line. Virtually all discussion by politicians has been on the imperative of finishing it while downplaying the financial cost. In “Hogan’s Purple Passion”, longtime columnist Barry Rascover has taken the opposite approach in his hard look at the epic financial mess that is now the Purple Line.

Though Purple Line supporters sold the P3 (public-private partnership) as insulating taxpayers from rising cost, Rascover explains that we’re now on the hook for the skyrocketing price.

By the time the east-west Purple Line from Montgomery County to Prince George’s County opens years after Hogan leaves office, the state’s total spending on the mass-transit line could exceed $2 billion. It may even top $3 billion.

If the state takes over construction duties of the Purple Line in the next month when the private consortium running the project could leave the job, there’s at least another $1 billion worth of work to finish. Plus, an added delay of six months — or longer. 

Given the line’s history of unexpected delays and under-estimated expenses, that $1 billion projection by the state for future costs could be way off.

This comes on top of the $1 billion in taxpayer dollars already expended by Hogan. 

And this doesn’t count the unpaid $800 million in contested cost overruns the contractor, and a judge, blame on the state.

Either we pay the consortium building the Purple Line what they want or we pay even more and suffer greater delays building it ourselves. Instead of protecting taxpayers, the P3 has turned them into hostages.

Rascover assesses who is to blame for this fiasco:

The state tried to lay the onus on the consortium. But a judge didn’t buy that bit of illogic. He ruled the state was responsible for out-of-control costs. He called it a “self-inflicted” wound.

In hindsight it’s clear [Secretary Pete] Rahn badly under-estimated the Purple Line‘s complexity and its costs. Lawsuits by unhappy residents along the route were inevitable — but Rahn plowed ahead anyway, never anticipating these almost certain legal delays of almost a year.

Rahn also didn’t anticipate lengthy fights over obtaining rights of way along the route, or expensive re-designs to separate the Purple Line from CSX tracks. Both were predictable.

The governor’s determination to privatize this project and get it completed while he is still in office overtook common sense. Now taxpayers will foot the bill for Hogan’s and Rahn’s terribly flawed miscalculations.

It’s even worse than Rascover outlines.

The Governor campaigned against the Purple Line and the gas tax passed under O’Malley to fund transportation improvements. He didn’t repeal the gas tax but instead used the monies raised to fund new road projects around the state.

Pressured by the Washington Post, which then endorsed him for reelection, Hogan changed his mind on the Purple Line. But instead of paying for much of the construction up front as originally planned by Democrats, he put it all on credit via privatization, so he could continue to pay for his road projects.

Excepting perhaps Anthony Brown, Democrats shouldn’t feel too smug. They pushed the P3 forward in their eagerness to move the project ahead and also went along with Hogan’s magically cheaper numbers that have now turned out to be wildly unrealistic.

The state’s ability to borrow to cover the monumental additional cost is consequently highly limited. Many sacred cows are going to be gored to finish the Purple Line.

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Transit Cuts are Just Starting: They’re Going to Get Much Deeper

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has authored an open sign-on letter (posted below) to Gov. Larry Hogan vehemently protesting major cuts in transit service and calling for more capital expenditures on transit.

The reality is that these cuts are just the start.

Due the economic devastation wrecked by the pandemic, revenues are down substantially. The federal government has shown no inclination thus far to help bail out the states, viewed as a “blue state” bailout by President Trump, so no money is coming from that source. The Maryland Constitution requires a balanced budget, requiring substantial cuts ahead. Gov. Hogan will not support a tax hike and there is little enthusiasm among Assembly Democrats either.

The drastically higher than expected costs for the Purple Line to the tune of over $750 million are about to suck even more funds away from other projects. The State has already indicated that the funds will come from other transit projects, like MARC. Even without the pandemic hit, the transit budget was set to take an enormous hit. The Washington Metro, unmentioned in the LCV letter, has already seen its funding cut.

The signatories to the open letter are notably a Baltimore heavy group. The absence of either Purple Line Now or the Action Committee for Transit, both staunch Purple Line supporters, from the letter signatories is perhaps telling. Both are normally easy gets for these sorts of letters but it tacitly recognizes the reality that the Purple Line will not be finished unless major cuts are made elsewhere.

Here is the LCV letter:

AN OPEN LETTER TO GOVERNOR LARRY HOGAN, MARYLAND TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY GREG SLATER, AND MARYLAND TRANSIT ADMINISTRATOR KEVIN QUINN:

Last week, the Maryland Department of Transportation and Maryland Transit Administration announced major cuts to the MTA system, including cutting bus service by 20%, reducing MARC, commuter local bus, and paratransit service, and cutting the MTA’s already strained six year capital budget for critical safety needs by $150 million. We, the undersigned, urge rejection of these cuts, which would be devastating to many Marylanders that live in low-income communities, communities of color, and people with disabilities.

Rather than take steps to relieve the strain of a veritable tsunami of challenges to Maryland’s most vulnerable communities, MTA’s plan would exacerbate residents’ difficulties and hobble the state’s recovery. TransitCenter found that 40% of transit commuters in Baltimore City and 35% of transit riders in the state work in essential job sectors, with hospital and health care workers being the largest share of riders. A large number of essential workers – nurses, grocery store workers, child care professionals, nursing care staff, and so many more – rely on public transit to get to their jobs. The proposed cuts would make it harder for these vital workers to get to their jobs, which would threaten their employment and exacerbate the devastation the pandemic has wrought to our economy. A shortage of these critical workers will also add strain to a healthcare system that is already spread too thin.

Maryland should be investing in more public transportation, not less. We should be increasing access to job centers from the communities most in need, not cutting it. We should be prioritizing cleaner transportation alternatives that reduce pollution and the health conditions that make marginalized communities especially vulnerable to the impacts of coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses like asthma. Vehicle emissions also create NOx that ultimately contributes roughly one-third of the nitrogen pollution to the region’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Among the problematic cuts to service, the proposed changes eliminate any route from Baltimore City (the jurisdiction with the highest reliance on public transportation) to Annapolis. Even in its current state, public transit to Annapolis is extremely limited, but at least it was available and provided mobility services. With the cuts, Annapolis would become inaccessible by public transportation, limiting the ability of many Marylanders to participate in our state’s Democracy. Public participation is always essential to a free and fair government, but never more so than in a crisis.

In reference to Maryland’s essential workers, the Maryland Transit Caucus has stated in their letter to the administration following the proposed cuts: We rely on them. They rely on MTA. We call on the administration to take immediate action. Funding from the Transportation Trust Fund should be allocated to public transit that benefits all Marylanders, rather than to highway expansion and construction projects that benefit only the wealthiest.

Signed,

  1. Maryland League of Conservation Voters
  2. Maryland Sierra Club
  3. Common Cause Maryland
  4. Clean Water Action
  5. Climate Law & Policy Project
  6. Safe Skies Maryland
  7. Maryland Legislative Coalition
  8. Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition
  9. Maryland Campaign for Human Rights
  10. Coalition for Smarter Growth
  11. Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition
  12. Transit Choices
  13. Central Maryland Transportation Alliance
  14. Maryland United for Peace and Justice
  15. Sunrise Movement Baltimore
  16. League of Women Voters Maryland
  17. Maryland Nonprofits
  18. Nuclear Information and Resource Service
  19. Labor Network for Sustainability
  20. Family League of Baltimore
  21. Bikemore
  22. Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
  23. Maryland Center on Economic Policy
  24. Job Opportunities Task Force
  25. NAACP Maryland State Conference
  26. Public Justice Center
  27. Our Revolution Maryland
  28. Indivisible Baltimore
  29. Indivisible Howard County
  30. Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility
  31. Echotopia, LLC
  32. Maryland Conservation Council
  33. Ji’Aire’s Workgroup
  34. Indivisible Towson
  35. ATU Local 1300
  36. Food and Water Watch Action
  37. Chesapeake Bay Foundation
  38. Disability Rights Maryland
  39. Consumer Advocates for Ride Services
  40. Progressive Maryland
  41. Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Mary
  42. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) – Baltimore
  43. WISE Maryland
  44. Maryland Climate Justice WIng
  45. Takoma Park Mobilization Environment Committee
  46. Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake
  47. Accessible Resources for Independence
  48. League for People with Disabilities
  49. Climate X-Change Maryland
  50. The Nature Conservancy – Maryland/DC Chapter
  51. Saltzberg Consulting
  52. Chesapeake Climate Action Network
  53. Sunrise Howard County
  54. Baltimore 350
  55. The Parent and Community Advisory Board, Baltimore City Public Schools
  56. Sunrise Rockville
  57. Marylanders for Patient Rights
  58. Bus Workgroup 14
  59. South Baltimore Community Land Trust
  60. Free Your Voice
  61. Represent Maryland
  62. Green Team at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Baltimore
  63. Baltimore People’s Climate Movement
  64. The Climate Reality Project: Baltimore Chapter
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How is MoCo Doing on Pedestrian Safety?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Pedestrian safety is arguably THE hottest issue in MoCo government right now.  With several recent high profile pedestrian deaths and residents swarming a county council meeting on the subject, alarmed elected officials are terming pedestrian crashes a “public health crisis” and demanding action.  The county has responded by hiring a full-time pedestrian safety coordinator and is promising more to come.

Pedestrian safety has been a challenge in Montgomery County for decades.  How well is the county doing on this issue?

First, let’s look at MoCo’s rate of pedestrian involved crashes in comparison to the rest of the state.  The table below, sourced from data provided by the Maryland Department of Transportation, compares the average annual number of pedestrian crashes by county to county populations.

Three of the top four counties on a per capita basis – Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County – are among the most urbanized jurisdictions in the state.  The other county in the top four – Worcester – has an unusual amount of pedestrian activity on the Ocean City boardwalk.  MoCo ranks 7th of 24 counties on crash rate but its average annual crash rate per 1,000 residents (0.44) is below the state average (0.54).  Admittedly, the state average is skewed upwards by Baltimore City.

It’s interesting that MoCo’s pedestrian crash rate is similar to less urbanized jurisdictions like Wicomico, Dorchester and Washington Counties.  Urbanized counties should have greater volumes of pedestrian activity because of a greater abundance of walkable districts.  MoCo certainly has more of those than Wicomico, Dorchester and Washington Counties.  That suggests that MoCo isn’t a relatively bad performer on this measure given its substantial (and increasing) urbanization.

One thing MoCo does is spend significant amounts of capital money on pedestrian projects.  The table below compares capital budget spending on pedestrian and bikeway projects (the two are one category) to total capital spending excluding the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in the last 16 Capital Improvements Program (CIP) budgets. 

MoCo’s spending on pedestrian and bikeway projects steadily accelerated from $44 million in the FY7-12 CIP to $225 million in the FY19-24 CIP.  Major projects like the Metropolitan Branch Trail, the MD-355 BRAC crossing and the Capital Crescent Trail are partially responsible for these increases.  However, the FY21-26 executive recommended budget is a step back.  The six-year total pedestrian and bikeway spending of $181 million is the lowest since the FY13-18 amended budget.  So is the percentage of the total capital budget accounted for by pedestrian and bikeway projects.

All of this gives rise to two questions.

1.  MoCo spends a lot of money on pedestrian projects, but is the county getting a good return?  A 2007 county council press release states that the county averaged 430 pedestrian collisions per year from 2003 through 2006.  The Maryland Department of Transportation estimates that the county averaged 459 pedestrian crashes from 2014 through 2018.  Between the two periods, the county’s population rose by 13% while its pedestrian crashes rose by 7%.  Is that a sufficiently positive result from the enormous sums the county has spent in recent years?  Given the significant needs in this area and the limited resources in the capital budget, the county may wish to study the most cost-effective ways of promoting pedestrian safety and direct its funding accordingly.

2.  As noted above, the executive’s new recommended capital budget decreases pedestrian and bikeway spending to its lowest level in seven years.  One reason for that is that the overall level of capital spending is declining.  (That’s a subject for a future series.)  With all areas of the capital budget under stress and the looming possibility that school construction delays will trigger residential moratoriums, it’s extremely difficult to add or even maintain funding for any program, not just pedestrian and bikeway projects.  That said, county elected officials will look terrible if they declare pedestrian safety to be a “public health crisis” but then cut funding for pedestrian and bikeway capital projects.

Overall, MoCo’s record on pedestrian safety is not a bad one when compared to the rest of Maryland.  But funding constraints could hinder its prospects for improvement.

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Create Gridlock Now?

In an unusual move, three members of the Montgomery County Council wrote the Planning Board to ask them to reverse their decision regarding the Capital Crescent Trail crossing at Little Falls Parkway. The Planning Board made the right call. Retaining the status quo both increases traffic and reduces biker and pedestrian safety.

In the wake of a tragic accident that took the life a recumbent cyclist trying to cross Little Falls on the CCT, the parkway was changed to reduce it from two lanes to one between Hillendale and Arlington Rds, located close by the trail. Unsurprisingly, taking away a lane and forcing a merge before busy Arlington Rd. has increased traffic in this area. More cars have also started cutting through residential Kenwood to avoid the new tie-up.

Instead of calling it an “intentional traffic jam” by cutting off use of an already existing and paid for road, proponents use the creative euphemism of a “road diet” to put a positive spin on it. Voters don’t much like sitting in traffic but diets connote virtue and health.

The major argument for the created traffic is biker and pedestrian safety with proponents arguing that fewer accidents have occurred than under the previous configuration. This might be a very good argument if it were truly needed to improve safety. Except it’s not. The Planning Board didn’t vote for a return to old trail crossing but to move it just a few yards away to a traffic light at Arlington Rd.

This is a much better solution all around for safety because it forces everyone to stop. Cars that face a red light have to stop and won’t even be allowed to turn right. Bikers and walkers will know they need to stop when they don’t have the light. Sounds simple, easy and cheap. Also a lot safer than a crosswalk even across one lane of traffic. Whether or not they see you, cars have to stop at red lights but, as in the case of the tragic accident, cars won’t stop if they don’t see you.

The people most unhappy with the Planning Board’s sensible solution are commuter cyclists. Instead of being able to race through at a straightaway if they see no traffic, fast moving commuter bikes will now have to slow down and stop as they bike a few yards down to light. Of course, if bikes have to slow down, one would think that would help reduce accidents.

The head of the Washington Area Bicyclists association has spoken out vehemently against the change, calling it unsafe because cars won’t stop at the traffic signal and make illegal right turns on to Arlington Rd., while pedestrians will be tempted to race across—either at the light or at the existing crossing even if the trail is moved.

In short, he is arguing that people will violate the law so we shouldn’t bother. I look forward to the county jacking up speed limits and eliminating speed cameras for the same reason. It also puts the county’s relatively recent anti-jaywalking campaign in a perplexing light. Pedestrians and cyclists also have responsibilities when it comes to safety and reducing the number of accidents. Drivers face significant penalties for making illegal turns.

The idea that people cross where it’s easiest is also more complicated than presented. People do sometimes jaywalk. But jaywalkers or jaycyclers tend to be selective about it. Otherwise, we’d have way more accidents at the many intersections without lights or crosswalks at the intersections of the county’s grand avenues like Georgia, Wisconsin, and Connecticut.

Beyond danger and the law, jaycycling could also be easily disincentivized by restoring the original terrain and putting up a few 3-foot concrete barriers where the CCT meets Little Falls. Like the red light, this tells people that you must stop and is certainly no harder or uglier than the bollards cutting off a lane of traffic.

I’m not unsympathetic with the idea that we don’t want to impede people unnecessarily. But it also seems to make sense to place this “minor inconvenience” on the vastly smaller number of commuter cyclists than on the far greater number of parkway users. Maybe we could call it a “speed diet” to make it more appealing?

The final argument for the “road diet” is that it has cut accidents by one-half so we shouldn’t make any changes. Except that the Planning Board isn’t going back to the old configuration. Putting the trail where motorists and cyclists must stop, as opposed to a crosswalk where they can drive through if they don’t spot anyone, should improve safety. Unlike the three councilmembers, the Board held a public hearing and heard from all sections of the community.

Traffic is also about to get much worse if “road diets” are now our preferred solution. According to the county database, for example, many pedestrian accidents occur in a short section of Georgia Ave. in Aspen Hill. I bet if we forced cars there to merge from three lanes into one, it will indeed be safer as no one will be going anywhere.

Pedestrian and cyclist safety are important. But induced traffic jams seem a dubious solution at best and benighted, when perfectly good alternatives exist. Indeed, the current solution got a two-year test, so why not give the Planning Board’s considered idea the same?

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Corruption at MTA

Maryland Reporter has the story:

In response to a call to its waste, fraud and abuse hotline, the Office of Legislative Audits investigated complaints about contracting at the Maryland Transit Administration, which runs the buses, subway and light rail line in the Baltimore region.

“Our review disclosed that MTA included language in certain contracts that allowed its employees to circumvent State procurement regulations by directing the contractors to use specific vendors as subcontractors,” chief legislative auditor Gregory Hook said in a letter to lawmakers. “The MTA management employee used this capability to direct work to specific vendors as subcontractors including one vendor with which the management employee had less than an arm’s-length relationship (related vendor). The related vendor was paid $3 million for the subcontracted work. Due to the questionable nature of certain of this activity, we referred this matter to the Office of the Attorney General – Criminal Division. We also identified possible violations of State ethics law that may require referral to the State Ethics Commission.”

“Our review also identified questionable procurement and contract monitoring practices, which may have limited competition and precluded effective monitoring of contracts and related payments,” Hook said. Contracts were issued without proper approval, and payments were made without invoices to back up the work.

Four contracts for snow and ice removal totaling $6.2 were issued to a contractor that the project manager had a relationship with.

While Secretary Rahn says that his office takes the “findings of the audit seriously,” he has yet to apologize or take responsibility for this occurring in his office on his watch on his pet project. When Gov. Hogan promised to make Maryland more business friendly, presumably he wasn’t talking about featherbedding of the form so appreciated by President Trump.

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How to Spend More on Education and Transportation Without Raising Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.  

It’s election season and that means it’s time for lots of promises from politicians.  And boy are they promising a lot, especially on the county’s two big issues of education and transportation.  The mailbox’s “progressive leaders” have “plans” to guarantee every child a great school, invest in transportation – especially transit – and to do all of the above without raising taxes.  Sounds great, yeah?

Time to get real, folks!

Education and transportation each have two virtues.  First, each of them generates direct economic returns.  Education spending yields a return on human capital while transportation spending yields a return on physical infrastructure.  Both are important for attracting and retaining residents and jobs.  Second, each of them is popular with voters.  For as long as anyone can remember, education and transportation have been two of the top issues in our elections – and they might possibly be THE top two.  Happily, on these two issues, good policy and good politics come together!

Paying for them is another matter.  MCPS accounts for a greater percentage of the budget than any other agency with a $2.5 billion budget in FY18.  Montgomery College received more than $300 million.  The Department of Transportation’s operating budget was $56 million.  Funding increases with meaningful impacts on these agencies need to be in the tens of millions of dollars – at least.  That kind of money far exceeds a spreadsheet rounding error.

And yet, there is a way to increase spending on MCPS, the college and transportation without massive tax hikes.  The catch is that it’s not quick or easy.

Let’s do a simple (and yes, admittedly simplistic!) exercise with the operating budget.  First, let’s identify the combined local dollar spending on MCPS, the college and the Department of Transportation (DOT).  Next, let’s segregate out intergovernmental aid, which plays an important role in the budget but is not controlled by the county government.  Then let’s segregate debt service.  Yes, over long periods of time, the county can adjust debt service.  But much of the debt service is being paid on capital projects already completed, and furthermore, a huge chunk of it goes to school construction and transportation projects.  Boosting education and transportation operating budgets by cutting their capital budgets is not the best idea in the world!  Finally, let’s subtract out local dollar education and transportation spending, intergovernmental aid and debt service from total spending and what we get is a great big category that we shall creatively name “Everything Else.”

Here’s what happens when we do that for FY11, the trough budget year of the Great Recession, and FY18, the budget that ends on June 30 of this year.

What the above data shows is that the total county budget grew by 28% over this period.  Intergovernmental aid grew by 26% and debt service rose by a whopping 58%.  (We have previously written about the county’s rapidly growing debt.)  Now let’s contrast the two remaining broad categories: the local dollars spent on MCPS, the college and DOT and everything else.  The education and transportation budgets grew by a combined 18%.  Everything else grew by 37%.

That’s right folks – spending on everything else has been growing twice as fast as local dollar spending on education and transportation operating budgets.  That’s a strange fact in a county in which education and transportation are arguably the top two political issues.

Now what would have happened if the everything else side of the budget was restrained to grow at the same rate as inflation?  The average annual growth rate of the Washington-Baltimore CPI-U since 2011 has been 1.3%, meaning that prices have grown by 9.8% over that period.  When we hold the total budget, intergovernmental aid and debt service constant and assign a growth rate of 9.8% to the everything else category, here’s what happens to local dollars available for education and transportation.  For the purposes of discussion, let’s call this Scenario 1.

In Scenario 1, $2.4 billion is available for education and transportation because of spending restraint on everything else.  That’s $383 million more than the $2 billion that was actually available in the real world FY18 budget.

Holding a big chunk of county government to the rate of inflation for seven straight years is tough medicine and very unlikely.  So let’s create a Scenario 2 in which the everything else category is restrained to twice the rate of inflation, or 19.5% growth since FY11.

In Scenario 2, $2.2 billion is available for education and transportation, $244 million more than the real world FY18 budget.

For the sake of comparison to both of these scenarios, let’s recall that the 9 percent property tax hike was supposed to raise $140 million a year.  (It probably raised a little less than that.)  So under both scenarios, the county could have avoided the giant tax hike and still had lots of money left over for more education and transportation spending.

Yes folks, we understand the radical nature of what we are proposing – namely that liberal Democrats should deliberately and strategically restrain the growth in some forms of spending to boost growth in other spending.  This is likely to be an unpopular concept in a county that has multiple jam-packed budget hearings every year with groups of all kinds requesting money.  But here’s the benefit to concentrating on education and transportation: both forms of spending are investments that generate returns for the economy.  And when those returns boost economic growth, they generate tax revenue that bolsters the entire budget.

What is necessary to pull this off?  Simply put, this requires strategy, discipline, patience and leadership.  Without those traits, given the huge number of constituencies that want their piece of the budget, it would be impossible to focus it on education and transportation.  The natural outcome of a budget process without strategy is that everything gets funded, a tax hike follows, voters tire of it and then they pass restrictive charter amendments and vote for politicians like Larry Hogan.

So what are we going to get?  Spending on everything followed by tax hikes?  Or a budget that is strategically focused on generating economic returns from education and transportation?

Folks, that depends on your decisions in the voting booth.

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Candidates Take Positions on Controversial Transportation Projects

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance has released questionnaires completed by County Executive and County Council At-Large candidates on transportation issues.  While many answers are similar – who doesn’t favor transportation funding? – others illuminate real differences on specific issues.  Drawing on the questionnaires, here are four key projects on which the candidates disagree.  (Note: unlisted candidates did not complete the questionnaire.)

Question: Do you support funding and building the missing link of the Mid-County Highway (M-83) to better connect Clarksburg and other Upcounty communities?

Executive candidates who said yes

David Blair

Robin Ficker

Rose Krasnow

Executive candidates who said no

Roger Berliner

Marc Elrich

George Leventhal

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Rosemary Arkoian

Marilyn Balcombe

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Ashwani Jain

Michele Riley

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Gabe Albornoz

Bill Conway

Hoan Dang

Evan Glass

Seth Grimes

Will Jawando

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Hans Riemer

Question: Do you support the Maryland Traffic Relief Plan to add new express toll lanes on I-270 while keeping the existing lanes free of charge?  (Editor’s note: this question contains a link to Governor Hogan’s proposals for I-270 and I-495.)

Executive candidates who said yes

Roger Berliner

Robin Ficker

Rose Krasnow

George Leventhal

Executive candidates who said no

David Blair

Marc Elrich

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Gabe Albornoz

Rosemary Arkoian

Marilyn Balcombe

Bill Conway

Hoan Dang

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Michele Riley

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Seth Grimes

Ashwani Jain

Will Jawando

Other answers

Evan Glass did not answer yes or no.  He said, “I am not convinced that toll lanes are the correct solution to this problem.”

Hans Riemer did not answer yes or no.  He said, “I support the council’s adopted vision for 270.”

Question: Do you support the Maryland Traffic Relief Plan (see link above) to add new express toll lanes on I-495, keeping the existing lanes free of charge?

Executive candidates who said yes

Roger Berliner

Robin Ficker

Rose Krasnow

George Leventhal

Executive candidates who said no

David Blair

Marc Elrich

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Gabe Albornoz

Rosemary Arkoian

Hoan Dang

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Michele Riley

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Bill Conway

Evan Glass

Seth Grimes

Ashwani Jain

Will Jawando

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Hans Riemer

Other answers

Marilyn Balcombe did not answer yes or no.  She said, “I don’t think we know all the options for how to expand capacity on 495.”

Question: Do you support studying the concept of a second Potomac River crossing, north of the American Legion Bridge?

Executive candidates who said yes

Robin Ficker

Executive candidates who said no

Roger Berliner

David Blair

Marc Elrich

Rose Krasnow

George Leventhal

Council At-Large candidates who said yes

Gabe Albornoz

Rosemary Arkoian

Marilyn Balcombe

Robert Dyer

Lorna Phillips Forde

Neil Greenberger

Jill Ortman-Fouse

Council At-Large candidates who said no

Bill Conway

Hoan Dang

Evan Glass

Seth Grimes

Ashwani Jain

Will Jawando

Hans Riemer

Michele Riley

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Marc Korman’s Transportation Mailer

By Adam Pagnucco.

Transportation is an eternal issue in MoCo politics and most candidates mail on it.  But this has been Delegate Marc Korman’s top priority since his first campaign and he has worked hard on this issue in the General Assembly, notably playing a key role in passing dedicated Metro funding.  The only quarrel we have with this mailer is that Korman may not be taking enough credit for his work!  Still, your author is a big Korman fan and we look forward to his second term.

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Reznik Calls on Board of Public Works to Reject “Shadow Government” Highway Contract

By Adam Pagnucco.

Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39) has written to the Board of Public Works asking them to reject an engineering and management contract awarded by the Maryland Department of Transportation for its planned expansion of the Capital Beltway and I-270.  According to the Washington Post, the winning consortium included a former employer of the state’s Secretary of Transportation and was awarded the contract despite finishing second in its written proposal.  The Secretary did not vote directly on the contract, but he had dinner with a representative of his former employer and obtained an ethics clearance after the award was made.  Post reporter Michael Laris described the bidding process as “expedited and unusual” and wrote:

The winning firms, known collectively as the “general engineering consultant,” would act as something of a shadow government for the Maryland Department of Transportation, which says its plan to hire firms to build, finance and maintain toll lanes is too big and complex to govern itself.

Referring to much of the above, Delegate Reznik said he was “incredibly alarmed” and asked the Board of Public Works to “restart the process in an open, fair, public, and transparent way, without the involvement of potential conflicts, and only after the public has had an opportunity to weigh in.”  We reprint his letter below.

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