The truth hurts
Something amazing happened last month a politician told the truth. That's right, a candidate for governor told voters that they can't have it all unlimited services, pet projects and no taxes.
The politician was gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich and the issue was mass transit. Maryland is planning two new light-rail projects: the Purple Line, which will connect Prince George's County and Montgomery County (New Carrolton to Bethesda), and The Red Line, which will connect Baltimore County and Baltimore city (Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins).
The projects are backed by an unlikely alliance of environmentalists and developers. The environmentalists want cars off the road, less pollution and less suburban sprawl. The developers want reduced traffic congestion so they can get more development permitted by local governments.
In Maryland's D.C. suburbs, the Purple Line has morphed into a sacred icon embodying the war against climate change and saving the planet. Having lost their 50-year crusade against the Intercounty Connecter, the Greenies are making the Purple Line their last stand. To them, questioning the Purple Line is equivalent to clubbing baby seals.
Meanwhile, Baltimore's business community is the Red Line's principal booster because, in its view, light rail brings people and businesses back to the ailing city.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has submitted both projects for 50 percent federal construction funding. The state must come up with the other 50 percent. But the current price tags are $1.5 billion for each project and Maryland's transportation trust fund is flat broke. Falling transportation revenues due to the recession, vehicle fuel efficiency and O'Malley's raids on the transportation fund to balance his budget mean the state is spending less today on transportation construction than 10 years ago.
Furthermore, once it is up and running, no mass transit system pays for itself. The annual gap between the fares paid by riders and the operating costs must be paid by state taxpayers. And the operating costs of the region's labor intensive, unionized mass transit systems are spiraling out of control. For instance, even after state and local contributions, the D.C. Metro system (WMATA) is facing a $190 million deficit in its $1.4 billion operating budget.
Nevertheless, no politician is willing to alienate business and environmentalists by blowing the whistle on light rail during an election year. Except Bob Ehrlich. On May 18, during a campaign visit to Montgomery County, the heartland of light-rail mania, Ehrlich pronounced both the Purple and Red lines unaffordable.
"You have to be honest with people, and the honesty is the dollars aren't there," he told news reporters. Instead of expensive light-rail lines, the state should try less costly rapid bus systems traveling on dedicated lanes, said Ehrlich. Not as sexy, but much more affordable.
Furthermore, he said, the state shouldn't be building new mass transit while WMATA, Baltimore's Metro and Maryland's MARC are falling apart. WMATA's 10-year infrastructure rehab backlog is $11 billion, raising serious life/safety issues. In Baltimore, wheels keep falling off buses. Where is the money to keep these systems running at acceptable safety levels?
Instead of refuting Ehrlich's claims, Gov. O'Malley (who once wanted to debate Ehrlich) took the low road by responding through a spokesman that this was "just more proof that Ehrlich is out of touch and wants to take our state back back to the days when the interests of private golf courses were put ahead of the interests of Maryland families."
Huh? Oh, I get it, Ehrlich is risking political suicide by scrapping $3 billion light-rail projects just to prevent the Purple Line from running through Montgomery County's Columbia Country Club. Yep, that's probably what he's up to; then he'll propose a tax on puppy dogs.
Well, if we're going to conduct this debate in the gutter, let's ask this question. If Ehrlich is tainted because he accepted campaign funds from Columbia Country Club members, isn't O'Malley equally tainted by raising cash from the same members? One of O'Malley's high school buddies, now a Columbia Country Club officer, has been holding fundraisers for O'Malley at the club. Why would members contribute to O'Malley if they weren't being reassured that the Purple Line will never run through their club?
Why will the Purple Line never run through Columbia? Because there is no way on Earth the feds are going to approval federal funding for two light-rail projects in one state.
After the November elections, Maryland's next governor must choose between Baltimore's Red Line and the D.C.-area Purple Line. To date, Gov. O'Malley has systematically shortchanged the D.C. suburbs to benefit Baltimore, where he served as mayor.
He has disproportionately raised taxes and cut state aid to the D.C. suburbs and recently tried to withhold $56 million in mandated state WMATA contributions. Once he's safely re-elected, which light-rail project do you think he'll deep six when the feds force him to choose?
Light-rail enthusiasts are angry at Bob Ehrlich for telling them the truth. Shouldn't they be equally angry at a governor who won't do the same?
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.