Monday, November 17, 2008

Show Us the Money!

Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Secretary John Porcari held his annual Road Show event in Rockville last Thursday. Its purpose is to brief Montgomery lawmakers and constituents on what the state is building in the county. But of course, lots of attention is also directed at what the state is not building. And that means – surprise, surprise – it all comes down to money.

From left to right: SHA's Darryl Mobley and Neil Pedersen, Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18), Delegate Brian Feldman (D-15) and MDOT Secretary John Porcari.

John Porcari is a considerably more skilled man than his predecessor, Ehrlich Transportation Secretary Bob Flanagan. Flanagan was notorious for saying in barely veiled terms, “You guys are getting the ICC. Isn’t that enough?” Porcari is facing a far more constrained budget situation than Flanagan ever did. Yet, his style is to lay out the budget realities in plain terms, have his aides drone on for very long periods about every state project line by line and artfully deflect the darts thrown by unhappy politicians.

And there were a lot of politicians present. We saw County Council Members Nancy Floreen, Mike Knapp, Don Praisner and Phil Andrews; Delegates Sheila Hixson, Susan Lee, Jim Gilchrist, Charles Barkley, Brian Feldman, Kumar Barve, Kirill Reznik, Karen Montgomery, Al Carr, Kathleen Dumais, Bill Bronrott, Jeff Waldstreicher, Bill Frick and Roger Manno; and Senators Jennie Forehand, Brian Frosh, Jamie Raskin, and new Senate Delegation Chair Rich Madaleno. All were on hand to hear the following:

1. There Are Only THREE Road Projects Under Construction by the State in MoCo.
You read that correctly: THREE road projects under construction. They are the ever-popular ICC, a 1.1 mile 6-lane highway along MD 124 (Woodfield Road) near Montgomery Village, and the Randolph Road/Montrose Parkway interchange in Rockville. A dozen more projects are in various stages of planning with no construction money scheduled.

John Porcari (center) has better political skills than most politicians.

2. The ICC is a Done Deal
The ICC consists of five contracts. Contract A, linking I-370 to Georgia Avenue, is now under construction. Contract C, linking US-29 to I-95, is also under construction. Contract B, linking Georgia Avenue to US-29, has just had a notice to proceed issued. Construction will start in early 2009. Contract E, linking I-95 to US-1 in Prince George’s County, is scheduled to have a notice to proceed issued by the summer of 2009. Contract D, which would build a network of feeder roads around I-95, has been “indefinitely deferred” due to cost overruns on other phases of the project. Just to hammer the point home, State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen stated “it is not our intention” to replace Contract B with local road work. At this point, 92% of the construction funding has already been awarded.

3. No Worries About the Purple Line or the CCT – Right?
Porcari and his staff were adamant that Baltimore’s Red Line, the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) are on parallel tracks for the federal approval process. When challenged by Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39), Porcari said that the recent planning cuts ($25 million for the Purple Line and $43 million for the CCT) would not affect the readiness of those projects for federal review. No one asked the obvious question: if those amounts were unnecessary, what were they doing in the budget in the first place?

Nancy Floreen calls the question - again.

But County Council Member Nancy Floreen asked the question of the night. When would Montgomery County be told of its expected “local contribution” for either of the two transit projects? This pulls the pants down on a dirty secret not commonly reported in the press. When the federal government and the state decide how much funding they will channel to any of the state’s three competing transit projects (assuming that any are federally approved), the local jurisdiction will be expected to make up any difference with project cost. Porcari’s staff could not provide an answer on when those costs would be known, but estimated they might be available in two years.

The discussion of the two major transit projects has always assumed they would be mostly paid by the federal government and the state. But what if a large bill is headed to the county? How much will county taxpayers be willing to pay for the Purple Line or the CCT? What if the property tax limit has to be broken, thus triggering the anti-tax Ficker Amendment? There are many issues awaiting the County Council and the voters in years to come.

Senator Brian Frosh (D-16) asks about BRAC.

4. Not Enough Money is Available to Complete BRAC Work
The Medical Center north of Bethesda is scheduled to add 2,500 new jobs and more than double its outpatient visits to nearly 1 million annually by September 2011. That necessitates reconstructing at least four major intersections near the facility as well as perhaps a larger corridor study between Bethesda and Randolph Road. That work could easily add up to more than a hundred million dollars. Yet, after cutting $16 million, the state has now scheduled just $31 million for the project, of which only $8 million is for construction. Senator Frosh and Delegates Bronrott, Lee and Carr all asked Porcari about this. Porcari answered, “We know we will need additional construction funding” but he also cautioned, “We know we have to live within our means.”

The Road Show was well attended by the Montgomery Delegation and many of them questioned Porcari and his staff. But the bottom line still comes down to money. During the special session, the General Assembly raised enough transportation funding to pay for $150 million in new projects and $250 million in additional system preservation. But the economic collapse and the diversion of $50 million to pay for repealing the computer tax have depressed revenues to the point that the state is only receiving $265 million in new money – almost all of which is scheduled for maintenance. Had the legislature listened to the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and raised $600 million for transportation, projects such as BRAC might be better funded.

If the county’s state legislators are truly interested in moving these projects along, complaints to Secretary Porcari will not suffice. The only way to make progress is to raise more transportation funding. Show us the money!