Del. Kathy Szeliga’s Sound and Fury

Delegate Kathy Szeliga (R-7) laments that the legislators in the General Assembly legislate:

So far, there have been 1159 bills introduced in the House of Delegates and 821 in the Senate.  Some of these are duplicate bills filed in each chamber – called cross filed bills.

Remember, every bill has the potential of becoming a law. Do you think we need an additional 2,000 laws every year?

Consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, naturally the next thing she writes her constituents is:

I am the primary sponsor of 6 bills.

Later, she writes proudly:

I have cosponsored many other bills.  If you’d like to see the whole list of bills I’ve sponsored and cosponsored CLICK HERE

Wasting Taxes Doing Something about Nothing

Unintended irony appears to be Del. Szeliga’s strong suit because at least one of these bills is a complete make work project for the General Assembly:

HB 454 – will prohibit the State of Maryland from charging drivers a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax.  This is a concept that has been considered in the past.  It’s a terrible idea for lots of reasons.

Cutting through the anti-tax rhetoric, Del. Szeliga wants to ban a tax that we don’t have through a law that could be overturned by the General Assembly as easily as it is passed in the first place.

But having wasted taxpayers funds and the General Assembly’s time, she can engage in the time-honored Republican tradition of going home and talking about how she fought the good fight on taxes, even though she will have done nothing even if her bill passes.

So, as it turns out, Del. Szeliga is right. Legislators are sponsoring unneeded legislation. She just didn’t realize that she met the enemy when she looked in the mirror.

Gun-ho–But Only for Non-Marylanders

Unfortunately, some of her legislation that would actually have an impact is even worse:

HB 735 – will allow people traveling through our state to transport legally owned firearms via vehicle or boat.  The unintended consequences of the restrictive gun bill that passed a couple of years ago is that it prohibits lawful firearm owners from driving or boating through our state with certain firearms that are now illegal to own in Maryland.

In other words, despite her claims to the contrary, the law is working as intended. Bizarrely,  Del. Szeliga’s bill would give non-state residents a free pass to carry weapons that we don’t allow our own residents to possess.

Earmarks are A-OK

Other Szeliga bills look more promising–such as the one to raise penalties for human trafficking. Strikingly though, the Republican opposition to earmarks and to spending flies right out of Del. Szeliga’s window when it involves her own constituents:

HB 1147 – is a matching grant request for $200,000 for Angel Park in Perry Hall.  This new park will be located on Honeygo Blvd and will be similar to Annie’s Playground in Harford County – a playground fully accessible to handicapped children.  Angel Park has already raised about $1 million in private contributions and this will help with the playground equipment purchase.  There are usually $7 million in grants for community projects approved by the House and $7 million by the Senate.  

Don’t get me wrong; this sounds like a great idea. I worked with my colleagues on the Town Council and in the County to improve playgrounds in my own Town. It’s even better that the playground will be fully accessible. I like Del. Szeliga’s earmark so much that surely some must suspect that she is part of the liberal problem rather than the conservative solution.

Indeed, a true spendthrift conservative Republican should perceive this as an earmark by the State in an area of local responsibility that just makes it harder for Gov. Hogan to keep his tax cutting promises. Especially amusing is her not-so-subtle mention of this being part of $7 million in state grants. Read: it’s OK; all the kids are doing it.

 

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PSC Nominee Michael Higgs on Twitter

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Michael Higgs with Gov. Larry Hogan

Gov. Larry Hogan has nominated Montgomery County GOP Chair Michael Higgs to the Public Services Commission. His twitter account should provide some nice grist for the Executive Nominations Committee mill.

On Hillary Clinton

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On Valerie Jarrett

HiggsTweet2Spelling does not appear to be his strong suit.

But He Really Hates Misogyny

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And Worries about Illegals Voting

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I’m beginning to see why my students heavily recommend Snapchat. It isn’t just young people entering the job market who may end up regretting some of those tweets that live on forever.

 

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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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Catching Fire–Just Not in the Good Way

streetcaronfire

DC Streetcar on Fire, Source: @willsommer (aka Loose Lips)

This was not a good weekend for public transit in Washington be it streetcar, light-rail, or Metro.

Metro is Smokin’

Here is a summary of this weekend’s record, though I’m not sure I caught all of the incidents:

  • Woodley Park evacuated after faulty brakes filled station with smoke;
  • Foggy Bottom smoke blamed on “maintenance issue” resulted in deployment of firefighters;
  • Smoke in L’Enfant Plaza after a Green Line train experienced a “mechanical issue.”

Fortunately, no one was hurt in these incidents. As usual, @unsuckdcmetro has absolutely the last word with his tweet: “Metro should vape instead.”

But the Streetcar is on Fire. Literally.

On Saturday, the DC streetcar and a car parked a foot from the curb had a close encounter. Think car mirror meets streetcar exterior and neither is better for the experience. Apparently, this was not its only collision that day.

But that turned out to be small beans compared to the fire on the DC streetcar.  Still in its prolonged working out the kinks phase, the streetcar experienced an “unexplained” flash fire on top of the car.

Again, no one was injured.

Purple Line Repudiated by Guy who Named It

In a letter to the Gazette, the guy who named the Purple Line says the project is a mistake:

There are many problems with the Purple Line that give Mr. Hogan pause. It should have been part of Metro. A trip from one end to the other takes too long. It cost too much and its benefits are too small.

The most important cost, though, isn’t in dollars it would take from better transit projects, but the destruction of a priceless pedestrian/bicycle connection between Bethesda, Rock Creek Park and Silver Spring. Maryland and Montgomery transit officials have been obsessed with claiming the Georgetown Branch for their own, regardless of the lack of benefit and destruction it would cause.

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Bethesda is on the Red Line But Still Another Example of Metro Blues

They’re shutting down the Bethesda Metro Station on Saturday and Sunday as part of the escalator reconstruction. But you probably wouldn’t want to ride anyway because trains will leave Shady Grove only every 20 minutes due to another project downtown. This is now par for the course for Metro weekend “service.”

Dr. Gridlock also reports that the escalator work, which has been going on for some time, will continue for another two years. This seems incredibly slow:

Replacing the three escalators at the Bethesda entrance is a major undertaking for the transit authority. The Bethesda escalators are the second-longest in the Western Hemisphere, second only to those at the Wheaton station, on the other side of the Red Line.

They must be removed and replaced one by one. That’s part of the reason this job, which began in the fall, is more complicated than the original installation of the escalator bank more than three decades ago. . .

The project could take about two more years to finish.

Dr. Gridlock communicates the idea that this is all normal because it’s a tough project. Except that other transit systems–visit the London Underground sometime–seem to manage to keep their very long escalators in better service. Yes, they have problems too but not at our scale. Even when Metro escalators are supposedly fixed, they’re often not, as the experience of users of the reopened Dupont South entrance discovered.

Part of the problem here seems increasingly to be the normalization of a level of service quality that should be accepted and always blamed on lack of funds even as we’re wondering what they did with the money already allocated.

Riders are voting with their feet and abandoning the system despite significant population increases–a real indication that all is not well despite those who minimize its problems, which have not been ongoing for years. People don’t want to ride unreliable transit systems.

At this point Metro needs an intervention to get it back on track and start tackling real problems in a way that earns trust, increases reliability. But I increasingly have little confidence that additional money would help much unless the problems are more directly addressed. Meaningful reform needs to be in place in order to merit more money–and ought to be a top transit priority.

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Getting to Yes on Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT)

circulatorFormer Bethesda Circulator

Yesterday, I detailed some advantages of bus-rapid transit (BRT) over the much more pricey streetcar and light-rail options that the Greater Greater Washington blog plugs very aggressively (yesterday’s example here) but now appear to be going nowhere.

So what is the barrier to BRT gaining more traction?

Paying Far More for Image Not Substance

Josh Barro on The Upshot blog at the New York Times put his finger on the source of the problem:

“Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.”

That fact, laid out in a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, isn’t surprising, but it has led to a perverse outcome: Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.

Barro details how New York is now planning to spend $1 billion on an AirTrain from LaGuardia Airport that will go no faster than the existing bus connections. He reports similar investments in streetcars and trains elsewhere that go no or little faster than existing bus routes.

Corporate Welfare

In Washington, the proposed streetcar slows down far more people on buses than will ride the streetcar. This isn’t “greater” but grandiose public policy that wastes billions of transit dollars.

Indeed, it’s really corporate welfare masked as social justice as it benefits property developers. There is nothing wrong with benefiting developers or other companies if we think that makes good transit policy and economic sense. But it just becomes corporate welfare when we can get the benefits much more cheaply through another similar technology.

Improving BRT’s Image

The good news is that FTA has found that gaining acceptance for lower cost BRT occurs with the adoption of straightforward design and marketing solutions:

That 2009 transit report gives reason to believe it’s possible. The researchers conducted focus groups with “choice riders” in Los Angeles: people who have cars but sometimes use transit. These riders had an unsurprising preference for trains.

“Riding the bus carries a ‘shame factor,’ ” the researchers found. “Most of the choice riders would not consider using it, or if they did, they would feel ashamed and keep it a secret.”

But what the local transit agency marketed as the “Orange Line” — really just a bus route in the San Fernando Valley with high frequencies on a dedicated right of way — managed to gain acceptance among “choice riders.”

As it turns out, making buses look as good as light rail or streetcars is just not that hard as this photo from the Montgomery Planning website shows:

brt-photo1

We can even make them look like streetcars, complete with hard and uncomfortable benches, as the former Bethesda Circulator bus (shown at top) demonstrated for many years. People still ride it even though it now looks like a bright red bus.

These design features and marketing simply have to be far less expensive than the literally billions of dollars more that streetcars and light-rail cost to do the same thing. The good news is that BRT is expanding around the country and so hopefully the unfamiliarity with it will decrease.

Conclusion

Public officials along with transit advocates need to get past the idea that trains are better and more elite or equivalent to faster, heavy rail Metro. They’re not. They just waste dollars that could used be to provide more public transit or something else useful. The sooner they realize it, the sooner we might stop spinning our wheels and build something useful and affordable.

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Smart Smart Instead of Greater Greater

Past Parts of the Series

Part I of this series looked at the decline of Greater Greater Washington‘s streetcar and light-rail agenda. The following parts looked at why with Part II focused on the severe problems with our existing Metro system and the high price tags of these projects. Part III turned to how GGW’s rejection not just of single-family homes but also townhomes and higher density new urbanist developments like the Kentlands engendered a backlash against their promotion of only high-density projects.

Instead of Greater Greater’s Going Going Gone agenda, today’s post begins to look at the components of an alternative, more feasible approach. In other words, how can we do smart smart growth and move forward with transit in a more successful way.

No Building Too Tall, No Project Too Expensive

GGW’s light-rail and streetcar very pricey streetcar and light-rail agenda doesn’t just promote higher density, it needs extremely high density that does not comport with the desires of most suburbanites (and many urbanites in low density neighborhoods) in order to make them remotely economically viable and have enough riders to qualify for federal funding.

Increasingly, we end up designing for the transit instead of the people. Light-rail and streetcar systems are designed to fit the cost-driven imperatives rather than those of the community or sensible and sensitive urban planning. When people don’t like it and vote out officials who won’t back their favored plans, GGW labels them retrograde and seemingly thinks that we should “dissolve the people and elect another” in the words of Bertolt Brecht.

Bus-Rapid Transit

But there is a way out of this chicken and egg problem: Build transit that costs less. Build bus-rapid transit (BRT).

BRT is not simply more Metrobuses that move very slowly and get trapped in traffic. Like light-rail and streetcars, it has its own dedicated lane. Signalling technology allows it to make traffic lights that it would otherwise miss.

Bus-rapid transit costs far less per mile than comparable light-rail and streetcar systems. It is more cost effective because it is cheaper yet you can still accomplish virtually all of the same transit goals as pricier streetcar or light-rail systems.

Because it is cheaper and much easier to build, we can afford to construct more BRT and more quickly, which would serve many more people than the equivalent in price of a new streetcar or light-rail line.

Like its pricier cousins, BRT allows for more density to develop around stops. However, because the price tag is not nearly as humungous, it doesn’t require the same ultra high-density buildings, which GGW firmly believes is how we should all live, in order to render it economically plausible.

Moreover, because there would be more BRT lines, we can plan a variety of densities. Some might end up looking more like Bethesda or Silver Spring with many tall buildings, while others might be more like the Kentlands and other new urbanist developments that have more density but fit better how many families prefer to live. And some may even experience little new development.

Less Conflict with Existing Communities

GGW derides anyone who doesn’t want to see a 250 foot high building overshadowing their home as a NIMBY and a barrier to progress.  Again, this is because of their ideological opposition to ever choosing lower or medium over high density as well as that the expensive transit lines they desire require it.

Because BRT does not require cramming a tall building into every single bit of available space, it allows the retention of more breathing room between existing communities and new developments. Montgomery County’s Master Plan has long called for gradual stepping down between tall building and existing single-family home communities.

The installation of BRT should engender a lot less friction–not no friction but less–because it allows for respect for existing vibrant communities. It also allows for the retention of open space that helps make developing areas more vital and make them attractive to families.

Smarter Smart Growth

So BRT allows the region to improve transit greatly at a much lower cost. Even as it doesn’t require it to the extent of light rail and streetcars, it also makes possible more density and development and makes it easier to move around. All are good for the long-term future of the region and its economic development.

Finally, because we can build more of it, the displacement effects around transit nodes will likely be much less severe and help cut the link between building transit supposedly for social justice reasons and then seeing the people who live near it forced to move away–an effect that GGW laments but doesn’t realize is the inevitable effect of the policies that they advocate.

Next up: So why have we seen so much emphasis on expensive and greater greater rather than smarter and leaner meaner?

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Why No MoCo Transit Authority

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Bus-Rapid Transit

Only a few days after I wrote a post outlining County Executive Ike Leggett’s proposal to create an Independent Transit Authority (ITA) for Montgomery County, the state legislative bill towards that end was withdrawn at his request as it didn’t seem likely to pass.

While MCGEO’s Gino Renne would probably like to think that the bizarre circus he created around the bill’s hearing, analyzed yesterday (“Ready for His Closeup”), had a lot to do with it–and it didn’t help–ultimately many other factors played a far greater role in the decision not to move forward now.

Playing Captain Hindsight and analyzing what went wrong is sometimes a little frustrating to those involved. Still, analysis can serve as food for thought for next time, not a bad idea since Tom Street in Ike Leggett’s office told me that the County Executive hasn’t given up yet: “He is soliciting ideas and alternatives but still believes, absent hearing about anything better, that he has the right approach.”

The Process

At the hearing, there was much outrage expressed about the political process. Except that this is the normal process for how bills become laws. The General Assembly meets only for 90 days every year and a lot has to get done in the session. Late-filed bills occur in every session and the hearing was moved to Rockville from Annapolis to make public input easier.

Many often complain that the state legislative delegation doesn’t work well with the County government. In this case, the delegation responded quickly to a request from the County Executive, who was just reelected to a third term, to aid with a top priority.

Nonetheless, the Executive needed to think more about the unofficial process (i.e. do more to get his ducks in a row in advance). Though many people testified in favor of the bill, they were for the bill rather than FOR the bill.

If there were clarion calls from the organizations that should emphatically favor this legislation (e.g. Action Committee for Transit), I sure didn’t hear them. More consultation with key players probably would have served the Executive well.

Executive Leadership

County Executive Ike Leggett deserves credit for getting the discussion started on an ITA. While not without drawbacks, it provides a means for Montgomery to move forward in a meaningful way on its transportation priorities and to make sure that tax dollars for the purpose stay in Montgomery.

Nonetheless, the WaPo editorial lauding the County Executive for his leadership  doesn’t mention that he walked out of the hearing early without talking to any of his constituents as he departed. County Executive Leggett normally excels at listening–a key part of the job–so I was surprised to hear this. If he wants something of this magnitude that will inevitably engender some controversy, he needs to be willing to stand his ground and argue for it.

To Do What?

More needed to be done to outline specifically the intended purpose of the ITA with various ideas floated. While the County Executive  proposed this with something in mind, it was not made sufficiently clear to the public.

He needs to outline for the community what he wants to do. In particular, he should explain that we need to build the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT)–already advanced into the design phase–and one other BRT line in the network approved in the County Master Plan as a demonstration project before doing the rest of the planned system.

The CCT is widely supported and will give the County a real economic boost. As Tom Street explained: “The CCT has more documented job creation potential than any other proposed transit project in the County. It is a very high priority for the Executive.”

Additionally, the Viers Mill BRT route provokes less controversy than others as most of it can be built in the median. The operation of one line will likely help answer questions many residents have regarding a mode of transit new to them.

The Business Community

The business community is hesitant to get fully behind an ITA because, like everyone else, they don’t want to pay and balk when asked to trust the tender mercies of the County Council on the amount. But business would be more supportive of a finite amount utilized to build projects that it wants.

One potential solution would be to create special tax districts geared toward capturing revenue from commercial landowners who stand to benefit tremendously from this project to provide the capital needed for construction but not operating costs. The county already has the authority to do this without an ITA.

These tax districts would shift capital costs away from residents, which they would like, towards commercial beneficiaries. Capping the costs at capital expenditures would reassure business, however, that they are not on the hook for unlimited amounts.

Residents and the Charter Limit

Montgomery County currently charges the highest property tax and highest income tax legally permitted. Residents are naturally suspicious when asked to pay more. Their suspicions rise even further when shifting expenses from the current budget to the ITA would allow more spending in other areas than possible under the current Charter limit.

The County Executive will never assuage all concerns. Some will oppose all taxes and just don’t want any BRT lines. But there are steps he could take to build greater trust with the public. Making clearer the purpose of the ITA in conjunction with the County Council would be a good start.

Additionally, any tax expenditures shifted over from the budget to the ITA–for example, if the ITA managed the Ride-On system– should still continue to count towards the Charter limit. This should reduce concern that the ITA is simply a ruse to raise spending on non-transportation measures.

The taxes designated for the ITA should also focus on operating rather than capital expenditures. If special tax districts targeted at business pay for most of the capital costs, it is easier to make the case that we should then pay to maintain this infrastructure. It would also reduce the new taxes required from residents.

County Council Leadership

The Executive and the County Council could have worked more closely together with the Council signally support by vocally backing a proposal earlier. This time, the Council appeared to lead from behind and to distance themselves from the ITA proposal.

Council President George Leventhal projects himself as a transit leader despite his tepid support for BRT. But he missed a real opportunity to take a leadership role here in crafting a proposal and building support. The Council President should take the lead with County Executive Leggett to present a united proposal.

Both could then claim credit for having moved Montgomery off the dime on public transit. The Council has a key role to play here due its extensive authority and because its commitments are critical to establishing support from key players.

Alternatively, the Council could find the means to construct the Viers Mill BRT line within its existing budget as an initial more affordable step toward building a larger system.

 

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Ready for His Closeup: MCGEO’s Gino Renne

GinoRenneMCGEO President Gino Renne

MCGEO President Gino Renne should be on reality television instead of leading a union. When it comes to political drama, few serve it up more regularly than him. Unfortunately, his members appear to be bit parts in the MCGEO drama. Renne’s leadership has lost them allies in the past–and now it is costing them jobs.

The 2014 Election

In the 2014 Democratic primary, Renne bet large, thinking that taking down a number of incumbents would set him up as labor’s leader in the County and put the fear of Gino into the County Council. It backfired, big time, as an array of MCGEO-backed challengers and candidates for open seats lost.

Beyond wasting the dues of his members on campaign contributions for candidates that didn’t win, his actions alienated his members from their employers. After all, MCGEO (UFCW Local 1994) is the union that represents Montgomery County government employees, so the County Council sets their salaries.

Look at Me! I’m Still Relevant!

But Gino Renne raised the bar in the hearing on the independent Transit Authority (ITA) proposed by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. Opposing it did not just tee off the County Executive but actually undermined the prospect of steady work for his members.

The ITA would allow the County Council to create a property tax that went specifically to transportation projects. As a result, it would provide a steady funding stream for work done by MCGEO members, expanding employment and allowing the union to grow.

But Renne nonetheless fought the state legislation to allow the County to create an ITA and turned the bill hearing on it into quite the event. Flanked by 50 often vocal yellow shirts, Renne argued that his union would no longer be assured of representing workers employed by the authority.

Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-15) did her best to point out that this concern was directly addressed in the bill (see p. 8, lines 14-20):

(II) for collective bargaining for Transit Authority employees with arbitration or other impasse resolution procedures with authorized representatives of Transit Authority employees; and

(III) that the authorized representative of Transit Authority employees shall remain the authorized representative of those employees unless decertified by the employees under the collective bargaining law enacted under this subsection.

In other words, why was Renne there? Or more to the point, why wasn’t Renne leading the charge for the bill? Renne made himself the star of the Gino Renne show at the very real cost to his membership. Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe it.

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