Transportation issues are rarely about getting from here to there. Instead, the undercurrent is likely to include money, race, jobs, unions, neighborhoods, housing, property rights, business and, above all, votes. Last on the list, but certainly not the least important, are the people who rely on the conveyances for their bread and butter or other needs for locomotion.
The administration of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, Republican, has, with the clearest of motives and the worst of intentions, flipped the bird to the city of Baltimore. That upright index finger has been extended in several specific instances, most notably and recently on matters of transportation. That is precisely why Transportation Secretary Peter Rahn was imported from Palookaville. He, by admission, prefers moving cars and buses to people.
Give Hogan and Kahn half credit, though. They approved the Purple Line to connect Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. That’s where the votes are and where the power is compared to the ever-diminishing returns in Baltimore due, in part, to decisions like killing the Red Line-- precisely the point of the politics involved in the decision.
Yet there was some wisdom in giving the line the axe in its proposed form. Even ranking government officials will admit privately, of course, that the Rube Goldberg Red Line was a nutty design. Building a tunnel next to a tunnel never made sense. Nor did the ever-ballooning cost, without even including overruns which were certain to be penciled in.
The Red Line’s transportation need was questionable. Its economic boost and symbolic lift were without a doubt crucial. Truth is, the money just wasn’t there. It was $1 billion shy, with no other visible source. Now, what money was set aside for the city’s rail system has been distributed to the 23 counties for roads, highways and bridges because that’s where Hogan’s Republican and conservative votes are. The white noose around the city is tightening.
And that doesn’t include the $200 million or so the Hogan Administration has stashed somewhere. DOT officials and Hogan spokespeople picked the wrong fight when they argued with Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly’s top fiscal policy analyst. His numbers and his testimony are rarely off target unless, of course, the money could have been spent under the table without Deschenaux’s knowledge. But for the moment give Deschenaux the benefit of the doubt.
Besides, there is a second independent study conducted by a semi-public organization that reached the same numerical conclusion. But if, as the Hogan Administration contends, the fund is depleted and empty then the meeting they called with city officials was a fraud. The truth will be out on Sept. 1 when the Consolidated Transportation Plan makes public its report and the numbers will reveal the actual dollar accounting and who will receive a Pinocchio for the deception.
The state’s road and highway funding formula was originally designed to provide balance among the city and counties. The city gets about a quarter of the funding, another 25 percent is divided among the 23 counties and the state retains 50 percent. Here’s the kicker: the city gets a large percentage of the fund because it maintains all of its roads, but 90 percent of the roads and highways in the counties are state roads and are maintained by the state. The money Hogan awarded to the counties was a bonus, thinly disguised and freshly laundered walk-around money.
But transportation advisers now say they are ready and willing to receive the city’s ideas when, in fact, they trashed the best idea the city had. That belated and smirking invitation sounds like little more than a generous offer in a pauper’s will. The state’s Plan B, the universal signal that the gauge is on empty, is to adjust bus schedules and routes so they are more accommodating to patrons. Well, with no additional buses coming into service, fine-tuning a bus schedule on one route requires modifying a schedule on another. Some wins and other losses render such meretricious tinkering a zero-sum exercise.
Another massive problem with relying strictly on buses without dedicated lanes is that Baltimore is designed and built on a sprawling grid. Historically, roads and other transportation modes have been more favorable to traveling north and south rather than east and west. In fact, as Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton populate, the east-west squeeze is being felt: There are only two main roads in and out of the area, Pratt and Lombard Streets.
At the heart of the matter is the simple fact that Baltimore City has no relevance in Hogan’s political scheme. With the city’s 9-1 Democratic registration and a 69 percent black population, Hogan couldn’t carry Baltimore in a wheelbarrow. He has shown his contempt for the city in a number of ways – withholding $11 million in education funds, killing the Red Line, neglecting to consult with city officials before administering the lethal decision and publicly feuding with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over handling of the riots, to name a few.
Though Baltimore was one of four subdivisions Hogan failed to carry last November – the others were Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles Counties – his chances of gaining a foothold in the city are well below zero as compared to broadening his voter reach in the other three counties. Montgomery, after all, is more of a good government county than a purely partisan enclave although the voter registration is 2-1 Democrat. In the past 55 years it has elected only four Democratic congressmen. MoCo voted twice for Dwight Eisenhower and twice for Ronald Regan and once for Richard Nixon. It is 12 percent black.
Prince George’s, the beneficiary at the other end of the Purple Line, is Hogan’s home county where his father was both congressman and county executive. And the Purple Line could be the kind of public ornament that might help lure the new FBI headquarters to the county which is a finalist along with a site in Virginia.
PeeGee is not above trading off its votes for an upgrade in its social and economic status as it did when it dropped opposition to a casino at National Harbor in exchange for a state-funded $600 million teaching hospital. Prince George’s is 74 percent minority and is host to Mitchellville, the wealthiest black warren in America.
Hogan’s sending a signal to the 23 counties, where anything with the word “urban” attached to it has very clear implications beyond bus schedules. And the suggestion is that Baltimore has become the state’s transportation stepchild in the roads vs. public transit standoff. The counties got the money. Baltimore got the shaft.
* * *
Here’s a sneaky tax windfall for the State of Maryland that very few consumers probably even know they’re paying. When making a purchase online and paying shipping and handling charges, “handling” is a taxable item but “shipping” charges are not. However – and this can be a costly however – when “shipping and handling” charges are combined into a single total on the bill, the two are taxable as a single charge. Thus the sales tax, where applicable, is calculated on the total charge for shipping and handling, giving the state treasury a hidden and hefty bonus.