Billions in transit funding put at risk

Baltimore-area group is slow to comply with orders of U.S. agencies

July 27, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Greater Baltimore is at risk of losing billions in federal transportation money unless an obscure regional planning committee changes the way it does business.

In a sharply worded report, two federal agencies cited the failure of local elected officials to serve on the committee, as the agencies demand.

They also took aim at the panel's habit of meeting in secret and otherwise minimizing citizen involvement in its decisions.

They gave the Transportation Steering Committee a year to clean up its act or face the loss of billions of dollars for road projects and mass transit.

But that threat seven months ago has gone largely ignored, say critics of the group and officials in both agencies.

Instructed to be more open to the public, the committee has gathered behind closed doors to determine how to fix the problems.

At a public hearing on major projects in April, not a single committee member showed up to listen to citizen concerns.

Recently, the group announced an "action plan" of changes -- which keeps the same committee members instead of replacing some with elected officials.

"This is a situation we have not encountered anywhere before," said a high-level Federal Transit Administration official who asked not to be named.

"We continue to try to work with them to make our point, but we seem to be stuck at the status quo. The worst case scenario is they won't be able to spend their transportation money."

Michele Waxman Johnson, a Federal Highway Administration planner who was on the review team, said the committee has made some minor improvements, but the core problems remain.

"When we wrote the report, it was with the expectation that we would see some major improvements," she said. "There's still time to do it. It's premature to predict what will happen."

The two agencies have taken the unusual step of arranging a peer review, bringing members of other regional transportation groups in to advise the Baltimore panel. At stake is federal funding for a string of projects expected to cost $16 billion over the next 20 years.

The problem, officials at both agencies say, is that major highway construction, transit, bridge and other projects are being approved or vetoed primarily by midlevel city and county workers, rather than elected officials who are accountable to citizens.

The committee is a critical gatekeeper that decides which of many competing projects in the region should be submitted for federal funding -- and in what order they should be built.

Membership is delegated

Officially, the committee includes Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and the county executives of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties. But they have designated planners and other transportation staffers to serve in their place.

The profile of the 11 committee members contrasts sharply with most other areas, where regional transportation groups typically include mayors, city council members and county executives.

"When you have elected officials or high-level planners, they can set policy," Johnson said. "They often are really interested in what the public has to say because they have to be accountable to them."

In the wake of the federal criticism, the mayor and county executives are said to have considered -- then rejected -- the notion of serving themselves or naming other elected officials to the panel to represent them.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger said he and his colleagues are too busy to attend the committee's meetings. "We have to run our government too," he said.

Despite the federal threats, he said he believes the area is not in danger of losing money. "We are going to do whatever we need to do to work it out," Ruppersberger said. "We want to look at the big picture, not who attends what meetings."

But Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens said she didn't realize the committee had decided not to change its composition. She called that decision "a terrible mistake" and said she will try to attend as many meetings as possible.

"We have to have some elected people at the table," Owens said. "I don't know otherwise how you can get to the level of setting funding priorities."

The committee meets today -- and is expected to elect a Baltimore County bureaucrat as its chairman.

That official, J. Craig Forrest, is a department head in the county's Public Works Department and Ruppersberger's representative to the committee. Despite the federal review, he said he does not expect any change in the board's composition, with the possible exception of adding some nonvoting members.

Asked whether the group will continue to meet in private -- an apparent violation of Maryland's open meetings law -- he would not rule it out. Besides its monthly public meeting, the committee gathers for two private retreats and as many as 10 closed-door meetings a year, he acknowledged. Even federal officials' requests to attend those meetings have been denied.

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