Monday, August 10, 2009

The Greater Baltimore Committee’s Man Inside MTA

Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) Deputy Administrator Henry Kay is a high-ranking planning chief with authority over the Red Line, Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). He is also a former employee of the Greater Baltimore Committee and is alleged by Senator George Della (D-46) to be “on loan” to MTA. Does that explain the incredible overnight improvement in the numbers for the Red Line?

The Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) is the leading business organization representing Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard Counties. The organization grossed nearly $2.7 million in revenues and paid its President/Executive Director, Donald C. Fry, $296,319 in compensation and $38,031 in expenses in 2007. See the excerpt from their latest IRS filing below.

Don Fry is a former Maryland Delegate and Senator and is one of the state’s biggest political players, contributing $16,215 to state politicians (including $1,290 to Martin O’Malley) since 2001. The Greater Baltimore Committee has given an additional $11,474.04 to state politicians since 2001, including thousand-dollar checks to former House Appropriations Chair Pete Rawlings (1/8/03), Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chair Ulysses Currie (11/11/04), House Environmental Matters Committee Chair Maggie McIntosh (11/24/04), House Speaker Mike Busch (1/14/09) and Senate President Mike “Big Daddy” Miller (1/12/09). But all of that greatly understates Fry’s power as the leader of Maryland’s biggest business group and the Chair of the state’s slots commission.

GBC is the leading mover behind the Red Line. In 2006-2007, Fry was co-chair of the transportation transition teams for both Governor O’Malley and now-indicted Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. In November 2008, Fry testified in favor of Red Line Option 4C, which would send light rail through Downtown Baltimore using 4 miles of tunnels, including a one-mile tunnel below Cooks Lane on the west side of town. None of this is unusual – business groups across the state support regional transportation projects and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce has long backed light rail on the Purple Line. What is unusual is that when Fry calls MTA, he speaks to a former employee.

MTA Deputy Administrator Henry Kay has a long history of service inside state government. He was a planner in the state Department of Planning from 1990 to 1993, a planner at the state Department of Transportation from 1993 to 1998 and MTA’s acting deputy administrator from 1998 to 2003. After Governor Robert Ehrlich assumed office, GBC hired Kay to head their “regional transportation advocacy coalition,” which they called the Baltimore Transit Alliance (BTA). Kay’s mission was simple: promote a light rail Red Line. Indeed, Kay made a presentation called “Successfully Integrating Rapid Transit with Existing Communities,” which argued for a light rail Red Line, at a 2005 Baltimore Regional Transportation Board meeting on behalf of GBC. Kay made another presentation called “Mobility and More: Prospects for the Red Line” at the Baltimore Architecture Foundation on behalf of GBC in 2007.

In March 2007, new Governor (and former Baltimore Mayor) Martin O’Malley brought Kay back to MTA. When he did, GBC said this:

After three years directing the BTA for the Greater Baltimore Committee, Henry Kay will return to the MTA later this month to become part of the senior management team of recently-appointed MTA Administrator Paul Wiedefeld. Kay, previously MTA’s planning director, was hired by the GBC in 2004 to manage the BTA which had been created shortly before by the GBC and a coalition of community and environmental organizations including the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and 1000 Friends of Maryland. Funding for the effort was provided by the Goldseker Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Baltimore Community Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. BTA accomplishments during Kay’s tenure include major funding for planning and design of the Red Line, authorization of federal funding for the Red and Green lines, new funding for transit system maintenance, and a community-oriented planning process for the Red Line. GBC’s President and CEO Don Fry, speaking on behalf of BTA, called Kay “the right guy at the right time.” “Henry Kay’s expertise and vision have helped define a bright future for transit in the Baltimore region. We wish him well at MTA,” he added. At MTA, Kay will oversee agency units including Planning, Engineering, Customer Information, Communications, and Government Relations.
Senator George Della (D-46) wrote the Governor, “Mr. Henry Kay is on loan from the Greater Baltimore Committee, which has left everyone with the impression he is their agent.” Della’s allegation may be impossible to prove and he has since backed away from it. But it is true that the Governor hired a former paid advocate for an expensive transportation project to be its administrator. That creates a direct conflict of interest and threatens to compromise any impartial evaluations of the Red Line by MTA.

All of the above may explain the inscrutable math behind the Red Line’s miraculous cost-effectiveness improvement. Originally, MTA gave Option 4C – which was Fry’s choice – a cost per hour of user benefit of $31.98. That flunked federal criteria and probably doomed the project. But mysteriously, when Governor O’Malley announced his support for a modified version of Option 4C, the Red Line’s cost effectiveness estimate dropped to $24.24 - just below the federal approval threshold. MTA engineered that drop by suddenly boosting its ridership estimate by 28%, dropping one downtown station and single-tracking the Cooks Lane tunnel – an idea it had condemned for the Purple Line. The project had gone from a failure to a plausible candidate for federal funds overnight. And who defended that decision? Of course, former GBC and current MTA employee Henry Kay.

GBC’s insider advantage at MTA and its influence in Baltimore and Annapolis probably guarantee two things. First, the Red Line’s alignment will never significantly deviate from GBC’s preference unless the issue is forced by federal bureaucrats. Cost will not be an obstacle, even if state taxes have to be raised. Second, if the state ever has to choose between the Red Line and the Purple Line, the former project will have the edge regardless of relative merit. We saw a hint of this once before, when the O’Malley administration largely spared the Red Line while cutting the Purple Line and CCT by double digits last fall. And who defended that decision? Of course, former GBC and current MTA employee Henry Kay.