Sunday, November 2, 2014

Opinion: Maryland Elected Officials Take Motorists For Granted

When it comes to motorist issues, Maryland is suffering from a serious case of "entitled incumbent syndrome".   As motorists sit idle in traffic, there seem to be no concrete proposals for improving the situation.

In the past four years we've seen the legislature pass an 80% increase in the state gas tax, most of which will be phased in after the coming election.  And other driving costs, such as vehicle registration fees, have roughly doubled as well. Yet it appears that most of this money is tagged to go towards transit projects, and maintenance of existing roads, with few if any new roads or bridges scheduled to address chronic deficiencies in our road network anywhere in the state.

State Lawmakers diverted a billion dollars from the transportation trust fund to fix budget shortfalls.  Now we are told to vote for a "locked box" ballot question (which motorists SHOULD vote for, even though it is an imperfect protection, since we have no better option available to us at this time) in order to save us from similar diversions in the future.  But wouldn't it be so much better if we had a legislature committed to keeping it's promises to the driving public in the first place, rather than having a new promise they might still look for some way to break in a pinch?

Maryland has already seen a roughly 75% increase in toll rates, in addition to the high tolls set on the ICC.  Those rates were set by an un-elected body, appointed by the O'Malley Brown administration.

See Also: The Maryland Transportation Authority: An Opaque, Unaccountable Institution that Needs To Change

There is no reason to believe that the anti-motorist sentiment in the current administration or the current legislature has changed, and it seems optimistic to think that all the measures to increase costs on driving are done.

Two years ago the Maryland DOT came up with a proposal to "establish a GHG emission-based road user fee (or VMT fee) statewide by 2020 in addition to existing motor fuel taxes", which would essentially require tracking the travels of every vehicle in the state, possibly with GPS or a device similar to an EZPass, and then billing us for miles traveled.  Now we are told this intrusive, Orwellian idea is off the table and a political non-starter.  But if this is really a non-starter, then why did the administration send the DOT to tell the legislature that they wanted to keep the option for a VMT Tax open?  In 2013 the MD Department of Transportation sent their spokesperson to speak against a bill that would have banned the state from imposing a VMT tax and argued for the administration "This is a new and somewhat of an emerging direction and option that is being pursued and looked at for transportation funding, we think we're strongly against any sort of options being limited right now.  These are things that are new and are things that we need to consider as we go forward as we look for new and more sustainable sources of revenue."

There are "think tanks" across the country, who have no concern about the cost to motorists or the civil liberties implications of such a plan, which are pushing for the idea of a VMT tax, and the federal government has been promoting and funding pilot programs into VMT taxes.  And if this is not really a dead issue, then which Anthony Brown should we listen to?  The one who's name appeared on the DOT proposal calling for a Vehicle Mile Traveled (VMT) Tax to be imposed on top of existing gas taxes by 2020, or the one who tells voters in an election year that he won't impose this (for now)?  And why would a friend to motorists put their name on such a proposal in the first place if they have no intention of putting something essentially similar in place if more politically pallet-able semantics can be devised to describe it?  Indeed the DOT's 2035 plan still calls for evaluating "congestion pricing", a concept which could eventually end up producing something very much like a VMT tax but under a different name.

That same 2035 transportation plan makes clear that there are few if any new roads or bridges in the works.  Motorists who have been asked to bear a huge increases in taxes, tolls, and fees can expect to see little more than a few potholes filled, and at least half of their gas taxes paying for transit project that run nowhere near most of their homes. Motorists frustrated by known chronic problems caused by bottlenecks such as the I-270 spur/American Legion Bridge in the Washington Region can rest assured there is absolutely no project in this 20 year plan designed to even attempt to solve that.  It seems at times as if the state has little strategy to alleviate traffic congestion other than to try to tax drivers like you off the road  --  the region's ability to sustain economic growth be damned.

Montgomery County Incumbents Think Drivers Don't Matter
Meanwhile in Montgomery County Incumbents seem to be tripping over themselves to prove which of them hates motorists more.  We've seen that in Montgomery County, the incumbents are happy with high tolls on the ICC, and are pushing for proposals to take vehicle lanes away from cars to use for bus-only lanes.  Yet many County Council members are so confident in their re-election that they have decided to skip debates with their opponents.

Meanwhile some incumbent state lawmakers, including those from District 15, are actually BRAGGING about how they have raised gas taxes to pay for transit projects, offering no tangible benefits for drivers from these new gas taxes while their opponents at least offer road proposals.

Incumbent council members also apparently will not respond to questions about the county's policies or plans when it comes to speed cameras.   And the county was apparently OK with allowing the head of their program to organize a secret speed camera meeting which critics (including the Maryland Drivers Alliance) were banned from observing.  Furthermore, the county refuses to answer questions about how much Montgomery county taxpayer money was spent lobbying against changes to the state's speed camera law which might have helped protected motorist rights.  I suppose this should not surprise us, since Montgomery County's "culture of secrecy" has been noted by others on other issues quite apart from motorist issues.

This opacity on speed cameras is particularly hypocritical in the case of Council President Craig Rice, who himself ran up over $1000 in unpaid traffic and parking tickets last year before being confronted about this by the press.

70,000 False Accusations in Baltimore, Who Will Be Held Accountable?
When Maryland Lawmakers voted for speed cameras, Motorists were given lots of assurances.  For example we were told contractors would not be paid based on the number of tickets.  Yet in the very first contract Montgomery County began paying to this very day, And even after claims of reform, most local governments STILL pay their contractors based on ticket volume, and they don't intend to stop this lucrative and deceptive arrangement any time soon.  Despite all the false promises, the bounty system is still alive and well.

We were told that cameras would be accurate.  Yet recent events in Baltimore have made clear that they are not.  Documents obtained from Baltimore City showed that the cameras were subject to "radar effects" that issued tickets based on false speed readings.  Baltimore originally tried to cover up these problems, then tried to minimize them.  Even after their vendor admitted there were accuracy problems, they still tried to keep secret an audit of their program, which when eventually leaked to the Baltimore Sun showed that 10% of citations may have been due to speed measurement errors... adding up to about 70,000 false accusations total.  Instead of calls for transparency, what we got were calls for "media restraints".

Is this isolated?  Maybe but how can we know?  In fact even the head of Montgomery County's program has BRAGGED about how their cameras are ONLY wrong about one time in ten.  And when the SHA's own audit showed that they dropped their own requirements for testing and certification of cameras and confirmed that they had skipped legally required independent calibrations for nine months, was there any justice for the hundreds of thousands who received the tickets from the SHA's uncalibrated cameras?  NO -- no refunds were ever given.  Frankly you could spend all day going over the examples of errors throughout the state which we have already documented.  It is clearly NOT an isolated phenomenon, not a temporary lapse or a fluke, it is a pattern of negligence across the entire state.

The fact is even today, the word "accuracy" does not appear in Maryland's speed camera law.  Despite claims of "reform", there is no requirement that the standards which cameras are supposedly tested to (when they are tested at all) are actually validated to ensure they ensure accuracy.  Lawmakers had the opportunity to do something about this, either passing STRICT standards for accuracy and verifiability, or banning the cameras, yet instead they chose to pass a distraction bill which was actually written by local governments which run speed cameras for the specific purpose of leaving existing practices in place, and changed nothing about the standards to which cameras are tested.

Who will be held accountable for all this?
Motorists need to understand that this year's election is more than about getting some specific change to benefit drivers.  It is more than about throwing out a few officials who have voted on some specific issue.  it is about showing the legislature that motorists are a force to be reckoned with, and that our interests must be respected.  These issues are part of a larger trend (though the votes on these issues are an indication of where state lawmakers stand).  If drivers do not make their voices heard, it is safe to assume that motorists will continue to be taken for granted, and that we will be taxed to pay off other more vocal, more organized special interests.

If you don't vote, you have no right to complain.
   - See how state delegates voted on the 2013 gas tax hike
   - See how state senators voted on the 2013 gas tax hike
  -  See how state delegates voted on speed camera repeal