Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Politics, MTA Style

The Purple Line’s top planner was featured in a very unusual article in Southern Maryland Online castigating former Governor Bob Ehrlich for his record on the project. We understand that bureaucrats care about their assignments, but should they really get involved in elections?

Lead Purple Line planner Mike Madden had this to say about the Ehrlich and O’Malley administrations’ positions on the project:

The Ehrlich administration delayed the project earlier this decade, calling for further studies, Madden said, while current Gov. Martin O'Malley has been more “supportive” -- making a potential upset at the polls a bit worrisome.

“I mean, if the governor was lukewarm or not really supportive of the project, then I would worry, but under this current administration, that's not a problem,” Madden said.

“I don't believe (Ehrlich) was nearly as supportive of the project as our current governor.” Madden said, suggesting that delays and scale-backs could be possible under a second Ehrlich term.
Ehrlich’s record on the Purple Line is far worse than the article suggests. In 2003, Ehrlich declared that the route would never follow its planned alignment through the Columbia Country Club’s golf course. (Never mind that the club squats on the publicly-owned right-of-way and has actually fenced off public land for its course.) Ehrlich’s Secretary of Transportation explained that “the Governor happens to love golf.” At the same time, Ehrlich struck a deal with then-District 18 Delegate John Hurson to build the Purple Line as a bus route away from the club and the Town of Chevy Chase in return for Hurson being “open-minded” about slots. Governor O’Malley canceled Ehrlich’s plans and recommended that the Purple Line be built as light rail through the club’s grounds.

But none of this is Madden’s concern. He is a civil servant whose job is to execute the Governor’s decisions, whoever it is. When state employees go into the newspapers saying one candidate is better than another, that erodes the perception of the civil service as an impartial organization above and apart from politics. This is a particular problem at the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), which is once again blurring the role between state employee and advocate. After all, its lead planner was once paid by the Greater Baltimore Committee to push for a light rail alignment on the Red Line that would be buried under downtown at great expense. Given that fact, it is little surprise that that alignment wound up being recommended despite the necessity of building a dangerous single-track tunnel and coming up with last-minute ridership revisions to justify that decision.

Bob Ehrlich was once accused of politicizing the state workforce by targeting Democrats for firings. Madden’s remarks risk a similar perception of politics mixing with civil service. The bureaucrats should go back to work and stay out of the elections. This is for the voters to decide.