Monday, April 05, 2010

Did Rich Madaleno Try to Kill the Purple Line?

Last week, we wrote about a proposal originating in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee that would have recommended that the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) study heavy rail for the Red Line, Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). We characterized the language as a “poison pill for transit” that would have subjected the three projects to waste, delay and increased costs and possibly put them behind competitor projects seeking federal funding. Purple Line supporters in Montgomery County immediately accused Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18), a long-time Purple Line rail opponent, of being behind the language. That prompted us to investigate.

Madaleno represents District 18, which includes Chevy Chase, Kensington, Silver Spring and Wheaton. A group of residents in and near Chevy Chase oppose building the Purple Line as a rail project since it would run along the Capital Crescent Trail, which they believe would be endangered by it. The trail cuts through the golf course owned by the Columbia Country Club, so they too oppose running rail through it and even tried to organize a fake “grass roots campaign” against it. In part because of the influence of residents, many District 18 officials have opposed at-grade rail on the trail, including former House Majority Leader John Hurson, former Delegate Jane Lawton, and current Delegates Jeff Waldstreicher and Al Carr. Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez defiantly supports rail and has been elected to the legislature twice despite that fact.

Madaleno is definitely a rail opponent. In 2003, then-District 18 Delegate John Hurson – a wily strategist who was at that time one of Montgomery County’s most prominent state legislators – cut a deal with new Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich to study the Purple Line as a bus project off the trail. When Hurson introduced a bill to prohibit construction of the Purple Line as a rail project, then-freshman District 18 Delegate Rich Madaleno was its only co-sponsor. Hurson retired from the legislature in 2005, but Madaleno ran uncontested for the District 18 Senate seat in 2006 and has been rising through Annapolis ever since. Madaleno remains a Purple Line rail opponent. Last year, he said the following in his testimony about the project before MTA:

During the course of my 20 years in and around the General Assembly, I have seen and heard all of the arguments for and against the Purple Line. After many years of discussion, planning, and community outreach, I still have very serious reservations about this project, from a fiscal standpoint, from an operational standpoint, and with regards to the effects it will have on the communities in our region…

Quite frankly, the state does not have the resources to pay for any of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT) options. Over the past decade, the only major new construction projects the state has moved forward with have been funded primarily with toll-backed revenue bonds. There are no alternative funding mechanisms available for this project. As a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, I feel confident in reporting that no new revenue options appear politically feasible in the foreseeable future.
So when the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee insisted that the three transit projects be studied as heavy rail – a move exposing them to waste, delay and cost increases – Purple Line supporters believed Madaleno was behind it. As the only known Purple Line rail opponent on the committee, he was a logical suspect.

But it’s just not true.

Multiple sources confirm that the language originated with Baltimore City Senator George Della (D-46). Della represents Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood, which opposes the MTA’s chosen Red Line alignment since it runs at-grade rail on one of their main streets. As a result, Della is an open opponent of the current Red Line configuration. On behalf of his constituents, Della asked Senator Ed DeGrange (D-32), who chairs the Capital Budget and Public Safety, Transportation and Environment Subcommittees, to introduce language requiring heavy rail study for the Red Line only. Baltimore City Senator Verna Jones (D-44), who supports the Red Line, told us on the record that she amended the language to include the Purple Line and CCT so that none of the three projects would be disadvantaged relative to the others. Senator Jones also told us on the record that Madaleno had nothing to do with the matter.

Following is the relevant language approved by the Budget and Taxation Committee:

Impact of Federal Changes on New Start Projects: The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently announced major changes to its New Starts justification criteria. The changes in the criteria could have impacts on the major transit lines that the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is currently evaluating. In light of the changes in the criteria, MTA shall do a full study of any and all reasonable heavy rail or automated guide way alternatives, including alternative alignments for the Red Line, the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway. MTA should also consult with various transit rider groups in the preparation of this study.
There’s one more wrinkle here. The language above was not included in the budget bill. If it was, it would have binding force of law. Instead, it is “narrative language” from the committee, meaning that the committee is requesting the studies from MTA. We are told that whether MTA is actually required to complete the studies by this language is an ambiguous question.

In any event, the House has rejected the language at the behest of Prince George’s County Delegate Tawanna Gaines (D-22), a House Appropriations Committee member and solid Purple Line supporter. Whether it survives budget negotiations between the two chambers is anyone’s guess.

Purple Line advocates need to keep the big picture in mind. The Purple Line has to pass three hurdles to become a reality. First, it has to be designed as a cost effective project that makes a significant, long-term contribution to the area’s transit system. Project supporters won that battle when the Governor settled on a light rail configuration using the Capital Crescent Trail. Second, the project has to receive federal funding. That is a matter of bureaucratic negotiation between MTA and the Federal Transit Administration. It is unlikely that either supporters or opponents can influence that process other than by slipping microphones spouting their messages under the bureaucrats’ pillows late at night. Third, the state has to come up with its share of the financing. This is a critical issue. The General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services believes the Transportation Trust Fund is in such dire condition that the state may have to pick just one transit project to fund – assuming it can afford any of them. If the Purple Line makes it past the feds, state funding will be a HUGE issue.

And here is where Madaleno can be an ally. While he has not been supportive of the Purple Line, he has an outstanding record on seeking new money for transportation. The General Assembly has shown a disgraceful unwillingness to raise money for transportation projects. They will never pass a revenue increase without the support of the Montgomery County delegation, and Madaleno is the delegation’s Senate Chair. Furthermore, Madaleno’s budget expertise will be needed to craft a revenue increase that will be both adequate and politically feasible. So whether they like it or not, Purple Line advocates need Madaleno’s help in making sure the state can afford its share of the project costs. That help will be easier to obtain in the absence of unfounded accusations.

Disclosure: The author is the Treasurer of the District 18 Democratic Team, which includes Senator Madaleno.