Voters deserve answers to transportation questions

Key issues loom for officeholders, candidates

August 29, 2010

Getting There is getting out of town. For the next few weeks, this writer will be trying out the transportation systems of places far, far away.

While I'm gone, Maryland will be counting down toward its Sept. 14 primary and Nov. 2 general election. So I'd like to leave a few transportation-related questions behind for Maryland's leading politicians — especially Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and likely Republican rival Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. It would be a sin and a shame if Maryland voters didn't get some answers before they go to the polls.

This column won't be back until Sept. 20, so these folks can take their time and consult their experts. But given that luxury, there will be no excuse for evasion. (Primary challengers also can respond, just in case lightning strikes.)

O'Malley: Governor, you've come out in support of light rail systems for the $1.8 billion Red Line in Baltimore and the $1.5 billion Purple Line in Washington. If approved by the federal government, both will likely require a 50 percent match by the state. How do you propose to finance construction of those systems?

Ehrlich: You've said you would scrap light rail on the Red and Purple lines, with a vague assurance that you would consider bus rapid transit systems, which involve dedicated lanes for buses, in their place. The problem is that the public hearing record and the official statements of local elected officials show scant support for a bus alternative. Would you move forward with proposals for bus rapid transit in the absence of a local consensus that they are the right systems to build? If you don't build them, how would you address congestion in those corridors?

O'Malley: What assurances can you give to the citizens of Canton and West Baltimore that surface light rail on Boston Street and Edmondson Avenue won't do irreparable harm to their communities?

Ehrlich: If you do move forward with bus rapid transit systems, how would you propose to pay for the state's share of the cost of building them? And how would you account for the generally higher operating costs of bus rapid transit compared with light rail, which the state would bear by itself?

Both: Please state your position on the proposed widening of Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Frederick counties through the addition of express toll lanes. In particular, if you support the project, please address the question of whether you would pay for the up-front construction costs by raising tolls on existing toll facilities.

Both: The Maryland Transportation Authority projects toll increases in 2011 and 2013 just to deal with the growing cost of maintaining an aging infrastructure. Would you try to prevent or moderate such increases or respect the theoretical independence of the authority to set toll rates?

Both: When tolls have been raised in recent decades, the Bay Bridge has consistently been spared the increases. Would you favor continuing its sacred cow status even if Baltimore-area people have to pay more to use the three harbor crossings?

Ehrlich: You've proposed to roll back the sales tax increase O'Malley persuaded the General Assembly to support in 2007, but a substantial portion of that tax increase was dedicated to replenishing the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund. How would you replace the roughly $200 million a year the rollback would cost the fund, and if you don't, what type of projects would you cut?

O'Malley: In order to balance the budget during the recession, you cut most of the highway user funds that go to local governments outside Baltimore. How do you square that with your background as a local elected official who supposedly understands the importance of such projects?

Both: Even in hard times, there are continuing needs for bridge, tunnel and highway mega-projects that either add to the existing infrastructure or replace outmoded structures of statewide importance. Please specify some big-ticket projects you would push toward construction. Don't confine your answers to the Baltimore area.

O'Malley: You've kept transit fare levels even in the face of rising costs. That's good for riders, but has it really been fair for rural Marylanders who don't enjoy the benefits of transit?

Ehrlich: Many Republicans in the General Assembly are staunch supporters of a 50 percent cost recovery standard for mass transit. Do you agree with them even though such a standard could require fare increases of more than 50 percent for some of Maryland's lowest-income citizens?

It's not all about the governor's race. Here's one for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake:

Now that voters are seeing the extent of downtown roadwork being crammed into a short period of time, many are questioning whether it's worth it to endure such disruption for a Grand Prix-style auto race through city streets. Would you please explain to us again why this is worth all the pain?

Potential opponents of Rawlings-Blake: Here's your opening. Care to weigh in?

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