Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Craig O'Donnell: Questioning our state Authorities


COMMENTARY By CRAIG O'DONNELL | Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 

A state “Authority” is established by law and attached to government. They are independent and usually wind up unaccountable to citizens. There are dozens, maybe hundreds in Maryland. Some are at the county level, some are regional.
They are supposedly financially self-sustaining and limited in what they do. But in reality they are more or less tightly woven into government. Often, their decisions are made in poorly-attended meetings. They are run by a board, and the board members are appointed, not elected. And they tend to expand over time. Some examples:
•The Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority (”Plans and develops waste management systems in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Montgomery Counties and Baltimore City.”) Currently pushing a waste incinerator power project.
•The new Maryland Venture Fund Authority (”The mission ... is to oversee implementation of InvestMaryland, a public-private partnership to spur venture capital investment and fuel Maryland's innovation economy.”) Handing money to bankers to fund startups.
•The Maryland Stadium Authority (”Established in 1986, the MSA is responsible for construction and operation of stadiums, arenas and convention centers in the State of Maryland.”) Someone recently suggested the Stadium Authority could start helping build schools in Baltimore.
These examples don't much affect the Eastern Shore. But the Maryland Transportation Authority owns state toll roads and bridges. When they run out of money, they charge you more. That affects everyone here, where people earn less but pay the same tolls as our more affluent cousins.
Why would an Eastern Shore weekly paper monitor the MDTA's doings?
It began innocently enough in 2009, by asking for documents. It was followup to a fatal 2008 accident on the Bay Bridge. We call this “nuts and bolts,” looking over the record to tie up loose ends. It involved a young woman from the Millington area. A trucker was killed when his rig fell into the water.
Something odd happened. We got censored documents. And then the MDTA turned difficult, stubborn and uncooperative. Want some documents? Pay us $307; or $800. Those few photocopies, apparently, would send it over its own fiscal cliff. It became clear they were not paying much attention to the state's Open Meetings Act, either.
Practically speaking, it does the governor's bidding. The secretary of transportation chairs the MDTA Board and has veto power. The governor can pretend he's not involved.
It takes in about $400 million a year; debts of $3 billion are paid by toll income. And it didn't want the Kent County News looking at what it's been up to.
Here's how the MDTA affects little Kent County now, and could really change it in the future.
Tolls: You pay them going to Annapolis or Havre de Grace. Economically, they make it more expensive to do business on the Shore.
Until the legislature passed measures to increase public information and public comment before toll hikes, the MDTA decided what the public should pay based on unknown facts and figures and held one “hearing” in Baltimore. Another round of threatened legislation drove them to have more hearings before the last major hike. Rather than have the elected General Assembly set the rules, they promised to adopt regulations for themselves.
Bridges: That pesky third Chesapeake Bay crossing could come ashore at Tolchester slicing across Kent with six or eight lanes.
The MDTA says it doesn't have funding to even begin, but a simple vote in the General Assembly to raise their borrowing limit could solve that.
Highways: How do you think the Inter County Connector came about?
The MDTA was given the project, a big increase in what it could borrow, and we were off to the races. Since the MDTA was there, it was a handy way for a Republican governor to put the entire project on a different set of books. The Democratic governor also thought it was a great idea.
So the governor and the MDTA got it declared a toll road, borrowed money and the SHA was involved as, in essence, a subcontractor.
If there's ever an Easton bypass, then, it might be a toll road controlled by the MDTA.
Unless they go for ...
Privatization: The MDTA loves so-called PPPs, “public-private partnerships.” The legal rules for these, which turn over public assets for a term of years to private companies, are not well established in this state.
So that bridge through Tolchester might be built and run by the Germans, Canadians or Chinese through a complicated business partnership. You won't have much say; but it keeps taxes down for the 99.7 percent of the population that doesn't live here.
O'Malley's Train: The governor has O'Malley's March, and he has a choo-choo too. In a prehistoric public-private partnership, the MDTA board members are sole stockholders in the Baltimore waterfront's Canton Railroad: supposedly a “private company.” Its function is rail service to a state operation, the Port of Baltimore.
The state bought it at a bankruptcy sale nearly 30 years ago. It's 100 percent state-owned, gets all sorts of help from state agencies and personnel, but the MDTA says it's “a private company.” You can't buy stock in it; and you can't see its books or its board meeting minutes. The MDTA and the state Department of Transportation help it with strategic planning; state officials attend its board meetings; give briefings; it's gotten really good prices on property; and Walter Woodford, a longtime MDTA board member, has been the railroad's longtime board chairman. This certainly smells like a state-owned operation to me.
The MDTA's track record on laying it all out before the public does not inspire confidence.

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