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April 30, 2010

D.C. Metro considers menu of fare increases

The board of the Washington Metro system is considering a broad range of fare increases, higher fees  and service cutbacks to deal with its budget woes, Greater Greater Washington reports.

All of the proposed increases are unpleasant, though there is little doubt that revenue will have to go up. But some of the proposals are especially onerous for Baltimore-area resident who make  use of the Washington Metro system.

Commuters who drive to the nearest Metro station -- notably Greenbelt, New Carrollton, Glenmont or Shady Grove -- and hop a train could face a parking fee increase of 50 cents a day or $5 a  month. Some board members are resisting the proposal because of its disproportionate effect on long-distance commuters.

One particularly obnoxious proposal for Marylanders is to raise the fare on the B30 bus from BWI to Greenbelt from $3.10 to $6. It is perhaps the nature of transit agencies to put off fare increases far too long and then to jack them up dramatically, but this is ridiculous. A near-doubling of the fares is a prescription for losing ridership on a bus route that is a key link between Washington and Baltimore (via light rail) -- especially on weekends when there are no MARC trains. It could be seen as a covert attempt to kill off the route entirely. An increase of roughly 33 percent -- to $4 -- is plenty for now.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:47 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro

MARC trainmaster speaks

The Stuck on MARC blog is running an interesting interview with trainmaster Dave Johnson. There's some good tidbits about the mob mentality that develops at Union Station on some stressed-out evenings.
Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:11 PM |
Categories: MARC train

April 29, 2010

Oprah says: Put down that cell phone

TV host Oprah Winfrey, supported by the Maryland State Highway Administration and many other organizations around the country, is urging drivers to observe Friday as an occasion to set aside cell phones and other distractions and concentrate on the road.

For Marylanders, the first "No Phone Zone Day" will be an opportunity to get in practice for the coming law  -- expected to be signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley -- prohibiting driving while chatting on a  cell phone. That law would  take effect Oct. 1. While it would not be a primary offense -- one for which you could be pulled over if you were doing nothing ellse wrong -- all you would have to do is be speeding and you could  get a ticket.

Winfrey said she hopes to see bans on cell phones and texting behind the wheel become mandatory and as ubiquitous as seat bbelt laws. She expects Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm to join her on The Oprah Winfrey Show today to sign that states's new ban on texting while driving -- a measure Maryland adopted last year.

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said Maryland will support the effort with public service announcements and messages on electronic signs. “Texting or chatting while driving may appear to be a more innocent act than aggressive or drunk driving – but it can have equally deadly consequences,” he said.

AP photo



Meanwhile, AAA Mid-Atlantic released a poll showing that 84 percent of its Maryland members support stricted penalties for distracted driving. AAA said 57 percent of Maryland  motorists strongly support a ban on the use of all celll phones and text-messaging devices while driving.

Some of those Marylanders may need a push from a law -- or Oprah -- to actually refrain from electronic distractions, the poll indicated. It found that 45 percent  of AAA's Maryland members admitted to driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone over the past six months.

The measure adopted by the Maryland Ggeneral Assembly earlier this month would permit tthe use of hand-free cell phones while driving, but the exemption does not enjoy universal support. Thepoll found  that 28 percent of Maryland motorists oppose the use of hand-free devices while driving.



Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:29 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: On the roads

"No Phone Zone" Day is tomorrow thanks to Oprah

Oprah No Phone Zone

Oprah doesn't have quite enough power to create a national holiday - I don't think - but she has declared April 30 "No Phone Zone" Day and several government agencies are backing the event. For months now, Oprah has been using her show to advocate against distracted driving. She has a No Phone Zone pledge that she's asked viewers, and even celebrities who come on her show, to sign up and promise not to text or use hand-held phones while driving. More than 200,000 people - including the cast of Glee - have taken the pledge.

Oprah will dedicate her entire show tomorrow to the campaign, which has the backing of the Governors Highway Safety Association, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and many others. Maryland's State Highway Administration also backs the effort and tomorrow will use the overhead highway signs to show its support, along with distributing a PSA video from administrator Neil J. Pedersen. Also tomorrow there will be events in some 24 states and several cities, including Washington, where a viewing rally will be held at the Newseum.

It's a worthwhile cause and hey, it's her show, she can do what she wants.  But I wonder when was the last time Oprah drove herself? I mean, doesn't she have a chaffeur? If so, he better not have a phone.  

Posted by Michelle Deal-Zimmerman at 2:40 PM |
Categories: Road safety

April 28, 2010

Virginia considering 70 mph speed limit

Maryland's southern neighbor is studying a plan that would increase the legal maximum speed on some of its interstate highways from 65 mph to 70 mph this summer, NV reports.

 The Virginia General Assembly gave the state's Department of Transportation the green light this year to increase limits on rural interstates by 5 mph. State officials are now conducting field tests to determine where such increases might be appropriate. A segment of  Interstate 85 between Ppetersburg and the North Carolina state line already has a 70-mph speed limit.

Maryland's highest speed limit  is 65 mph.

Some safety advocattes get stressed out an any mention of raising speed limits, but in my view it's not a significant problem. Prudent drivers already top out at just above 70 on rural interstates in the mid-Atlantic  states. Chances are, an increase in rural Virginia would have little effect on actual speeds.

My view has long been that speeding should be addressed primarily by tough laws against extreme behavior such as driving at 80 mph and above or 20 mph over the speed limit. Virginia already has strong laws bringing extreme speeding under its reckless driving law. If Maryland, were to do the same, and get rid of PBJs for such offenders, I'd  be happy too see rural highways  such as Interstate 70 and Interstate 68 bumped to 70 mph.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:57 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: On the roads

April 27, 2010

State to rehab bridges over B-W Parkway

Two 60-year-old bridges over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Route 295) in Anne Arundel County will be closed overnight intermittently over the next year or so for rehabilitation work, the State Highway Administration has announced.

The closings are part of a $1.2 million project to replace the decks on the two Ridge Road bridges, as well as to clean and paint the structural steel and resurface the approaches. The work is expected to continue through next spring.

The SHA said that within the next few weeks its contractor will narrow the Ridge Road crossings to a single lane, controlled by a temporary  traffic signal. During off-peak hours, the SHA may close on or two  lanes of traffic on the parkway to ensure the safety of drivers and workers.  

According to the SHA, the two bridges were built in 1950 and carry 1,100  vehicles a  day. The agency said the deck replacement could extend the bridges' useful life by 20 years.



Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

Greenspring Valley Road to be resurfaced

The State Highway Administration will begin resurfacing work on Greenspring Valley Road Wednesday, requiring daytime lane closures over the next several months.

 The $2 million resurfacing project will extend along Route 130 in Baltimore County for 5 1/2 miles from Reisterstown Road to Falls Road. Lane closures will be permitted between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday-Friday until the work is completed. Flag crews will control traffic in the consttruction zone as workers mill and patch Greenspring Valley and apply the new  surface.

According to the SHA, the project is being financed with federal stimulus dollars. Work is expected to be completed in early July.




Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:08 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: On the roads

April 21, 2010

Getting There gets out of town

I'll be taking this blog out of town today, with a trip to Tampa. This comes via Blackberry so may be cryptic. I95 great this AM. Drivers sane, wonder of wonders. AirTran checkin needlessly complicated by lousy computer program trying to sucker you into paying extra $69. But got thru that. Departure delayed 1 hour or more by mech prob but airline had decency to deplane us. Beats being a tarmac prisoner.
Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:32 AM | | Comments (1)

April 20, 2010

Leaders of Md., Va., D.C. agree on Metro plans

Gov. Martin O'Malley and the chief executives of Virginia and the District of Columbia agreed Tuesday on a plan to deal with safety issues on Washington's troubled Metro system, which experienced a catastrophic train collision last summer and a spate of fatal workplace accidents since then.

The agreement wiith Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Washington Mayor Adrian  Fenty calls for the three jurisdiction to quickly carry out a ""Phase One" oversight program without complex negotiations. The interim phase would be followed  by a long-term "Phase Two" plan that would bring about a safety oversight plan -- involving either a regional commission or a federal oversight agency. The leaders agreed to make that decision after the passage  of federal legislation governing transit  system safety or  the issuance of regulations or a presidential executive order.

Shaun Adamec, O'Malley's spokesman, said the three chief executives agreed to draft and send a joint letter to Congress outlining the changes they want  to make in a 40-year-old compact governing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to bolster their roles in system governance.


"They all agreed that greater executive authority is a way to improve the system," Adamec said.

The Washington Metro was the site of a two-train collision on the Red Line last summer that killed nine. The agency has also criticized for a lack of a safety-oriented culture after a series of workplace fatalities.

The spokesman said it was a productive and cordial meeting between O'Malley, a Democrat, and McDonnell, a newly elected conservative Republican. It was the first business meeting between the two governors since McDonnell's election in November, though O'Malley attended the Virginian's inauguration in January.

In addition to Metro issues, the governors of Maryland and Virginia must frequently deal with each  other on issues relating to the Chesapeake Bay. The last time a Democrat governed Maryland and a Republican governed Virginia was when Parris Glendening was in Annapolis  and Jim Gilmore was in Richmond. Their relationship could charitably be described as chilly.

So far, at least, O'Malley-McDonnell dealings appear to be warmer. Adamec noted that  much of the groundwork for agreement had been completed under the administration of former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat.

 "These issues are too important to just let fall  apart at  the change of administration," Adamec said.




Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:46 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro

April 19, 2010

Vallario's chart distorts drunk driving numbers

On the last night of this year's General Assembly session, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. convened the panel about 9 p.m. to inform them that he was killing a bill that would have required an ignition interlock device be installed on vehicles owned by motorists convicted of drunk driving.

The bill had passed the Senate unanimously weeks  before, but Vallario permitted no vote on the measure. He simply informed the committee that he and advocates could not come to an agreement on his proposals  to water down the bill, and he provided members and the media with a chart to  help explain his decision.

That chart was fundamentally flawed.

The graphic purported to show the changes in alcohol-related fatalities from 2004 to 2008 in three states: New Mexico, which had a adopted a mandatory ignition-interlock requirement in 2005 for alll drunk drivers; Virginia, which had adopted such a requirement only for those drunk drivers found to have blood-alcohol readings of roughly twice the legal level; and Maryland, which had not adopted interlock legislation during that  period. It gave the impression that fatalities in Marylland had fallen at a rate equal to or greater  than the rate in New Mexico -- bolstering Vallario's position that an ignition interlock bill affecting all drunk drivers was not needed in Maryland.

The chart did not use the most relevant and authoritative data: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's tabulation of fatalities involving drunk drivers (using the national standard of .08 percent blood alcohol). Instead it pulled the Maryland numbers from a group called AlcoholAlert and focused  on all fatalities  in which the driver  had any alcohol in the bloodstream --  down to the non-intoxicated level of .01.

But the numbers from New Mexico and Virginia, which were charted on the same grid, were taken from some other source. They did not match up with the comparable Maryland numbers from AlcoholAlert. (A staff member for the Judiciary Committee agreed that the  numbers were incorrect and said he would check into the source of the data.)

The effect of using the non-comparable data was to misrepresent the results in New Mexico, which proponents of the interlock bill had been holding up as an example of the positive results of such a law. Had comparable numbers been used, New Mexico's numbers would have shown a decline of 44  percent rather than the 34 percent it did show. (The Virginia  numbers, no matter which data are used, show no positive effect from its law with a .15 threshold -- the number Vallario and the liquor lobby were advocating.)

A table inside Vallario's packet, based on actual NHTSA data, actually makes a strong case for the bill  the chairman killed. It showed a decline of 26.3 percent in the drunk driving fatality rate in Maryland compared with a 39.4 percent decline in New Mexico. (Maryland's decline was exaggerated because of a spike in deaths in 2004. If you take 2005 as the starting point, Maryland's decline was 0.3 percent while New Mexico's was more than 34 percent.)

However you look at these numbers, the data are too sketchy to "prove" anything. At best, they merely give an indication that Virginia's law isn't working and that New Mexico's is. But when they are portrayed accurately, the numbers do buttress the case made by MADD and other advocates of a stiff ignition interlock law.

Vallario provided this chart  to members of his committee late at night when members were exhausted and nobody was in a position to challenge his data. Even if they had, the outcome likely would have been the same. But members of a legislative committee, as well as the public, depend on the information provided by the staff and the chairman of a committee to be  accurate. When it's not, an explanation is in order.

In the House of Delegates, committee chairs answer to  only one person: House Speaker Michael  E. Busch.

Caroline Cash, executive director of MADD Maryland, said the distribution of the inaccurate chart shows that "the public is not getting the facts."

Asked what recourse the group would take, she said: "The first step would be the speaker's office."

It would be unlike the professional staff of the General Assembly to deliberately  take part in any effort to deceive members. My first question would be whether the source of the chart Vallario distributed were a lobbyist. That would explain a lot.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:23 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: On the roads

York transit service conducting survey

A transit service that runs buses between York, Pa., and northern Baltimore County is seeking information from commuters on how it could better serve riders who work in Maryland.

Rabbitransit, the York County transit agency, has been operating buses to Hunt Valley and Timonium for about a year as part of a federally financed, three-year trial. But according to  Baltimore County transportation planner Emery Hines, ridership so far has been disappointing.

According to Hines, Rabbitransit is conducting a survey of Pennsylvanians who work in Baltimore County in an attempt to learn how the system could better serve them. The system now terminates at the Timonium Light Rail station, but according to Hines, the  transit agency wants to know -- among other things -- whether there would be demand for a stop in Towson.

So if you'd be interested in letting Rabbitransit know how it could help you, click here

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:10 AM |

April 17, 2010

Regional groups seek views on transportation

Two important regional government organizations are inviting the public to contribute their ideas about the Baltimore area's transportation future at a series of workshops this month and next.

The Baltimore Regional Transportation Board and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, both of which represent the governments of local jurisdictions, are sponsoring a pprogram called imagine2060 to develop a vision for transportation in the region over the nextt 50 years.

One workshop  will be held in Baltimore  and one in each of the five metropolitan counties. Registration begins 30 minutes before each meeting.


Here is the schedule for the workshops:

• Baltimore City – Monday, May 3, 6 – 8 p.m.
State Center, Building 4
201 W. Preston Street – Atrium, Baltimore, MD 21201
• Anne Arundel County – Monday, April 26, 6 – 8 p.m.
Pascal Senior Center
125 Dorsey Road, Glen Burnie, MD 21061
• Baltimore County – Thursday, April 29, 6 – 8 p.m.
Planning Board Meeting Room
105 West Chesapeake Ave., Towson, MD 21204
• Carroll County – Wednesday, April 28, 6 – 8 p.m.
Westminster Senior Center
125 Stoner Ave., Westminster, MD 21157
• Harford County – Tuesday, May 11, 6 – 8 p.m.
County Administrative Building, 2nd Floor Conference Room
220 South Main Street, Bel Air, MD 21014
• Howard County – Tuesday, May 4, 7 – 9 p.m.
Howard Community College, Duncan Hall – Kittleman Room
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044
Registration begins 30 minutes prior to each workshop.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:38 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: For policy wonks only

April 14, 2010

Roundabout to go away

The roundabout on the north end of the Charles Street bridge over the Beltway will be taken out as part of the current, $44 million bridge replacement project that is causing a world of disruption, State Highway Administration officials say.

The roundabout, which lies at the intersection of Charles and Bellona Avenue, will be replaced by a traffic signal, said District 4 engineer Dave Malkowski.

Most of the roundabouts the SHA has installed have been quite successful, but the one at Charles and Bellona has been more troubled than others, Malkowski acknowledged. Largely because of  the relatively  small space it occupies, traffic doesn't flow as smoothly as through other circles and vehicles  tend to back up.

According to the bridge replacement project manager, the roundabout will be eliminated toward the end of the job -- probably  llate 2011 or early 2012.

During a  tour of the site Wednesday, Malkowski also pointed out that the new bridge will have full sidewalks on both sides as well as two 5-foot-wide bike lanes. The inclusion of such amenities reflects a growing realization at the SHA that infrastructure needs  to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles as well as motor vehicles.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:51 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

April 13, 2010

Ban on reading text message while driving fails

In the arcane world of the Maryland General Assembly, there's a key distinction between a bill being "done" and a bill being "done-done."

 The bill that would have extended last year's ban on texting while driving to reading incoming text messages got done. It was passed by both houses of the legislature. But it never got done-done -- passed in the same form by the House and the Senate. Thus, it failed.

The hang-up came when the Senate added amendments on the final evening of the session and the House would not agree. The differences weren't that great, but the conference committee either couldn't get around to meeting or failed to agree before midnight brough adjournment sine die.

It's a bit ironic that this bill would fail and the much more sweeping ban on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving would pass. Going into the session, the relatively modest extension of last yearr's texting ban would have seemed to be much more likely to pass. But strange things happen in Annapolis on sine die. All it takes to sink a bill that had seemed to be a lock is the adoption of one amendment on the last day.

Unfortunately, we had a mistake in this morning Sun where we mistook done for done-done. We regret the error.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:54 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

April 12, 2010

Ignition interlock bill pronounced dead

House Judiciary Committee Joseph F. Vallario Jr. has just pronounced a bill that would have required an ignition interlock device on the vehicles of those convicted of drunk driving dead for the 2010 session.

Vallario convened a voting session of the committee at 8:30 p.m. and distributed a memorandum saying he had been unable to reach an agreement with the sponsor and advocates of the legislation, the No. 1 priority of MADD this year.

The legislation that passed the Senate unanimously would have affected all persons convicted of driving under the influence, which is defined as having blood alcohol of .08 percent or more. Vallario said 27 states have automatic ignition interlock requirements for drivers with BAC measurements of .15 or more.

 He said he and his allies had offered to lower that level to .12 and to also include subsequent offenders and those under 21. MADD and other advocates had said they would reject such a compromise and they did.

 Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he was disappointed a deal could not be reached.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:55 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: On the roads

Bicyclists pedal to great session

Last year, the state's bicycle lobby came out of Annapolis twith the political equivalent of two punctured tires. The bills of most interest to them were quashed in committee amid a tide of anti-bike sentiment. This year has been a complete reversal.

On Saturday, the House passed the Senate bill requiring a 3-foot buffer area between motor vehicles and bicycles. It's on its way to the governor.

Tonight another bicycle-friendly bill is coming to the House floor for final passage -- this one freeing bicyclists to use their discretion on when to stay in the shoulder and when to use the roadway. Adccording to Del. Al Carr, that conforms Maryland law to that in 44 other states.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:19 PM | | Comments (2)

Greens hail passage of transportation bill

Maryland's greens have found something to cheer on the last day of the 2010 legislative with the passage of a rather wonky bill that would require the consideration of a series of environmental criteria in evaluating transportation projects.

 The bill won passage 31-14 over the opposition of Republican senators.

I'll let Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland, explain why environmentalists are so pleased:


The Maryland Senate today passed legislation designed to make transportation spending line up with the state’s official smart growth goals. SB 760/HB 1155 will help the Maryland Department of Transportation evaluate transportation proposals in order to fund the projects that would do the best job of promoting smart growth. The lead House sponsor of the bill is Del. Steve Lafferty (Baltimore County).  The lead Senate sponsors are Sen. Catherine Pugh (Baltimore) and Sen. David Harrington (Prince George’s).







"Especially in this time of tight budgets, we need to make sure we are spending our state transportation dollars wisely," said Environment Maryland State Director Brad Heavner.

The bill passed the House on March 26 by a vote of 104-32. The Senate passed the bill on the final day of the session by a vote of 31-14.

The bill increases transparency to a decision making process that many people consider to take place mainly behind closed doors. Currently, counties submit wish lists to the state and the Department of Transportation has wide latitude to choose which projects go into the state capital budget.

Supporters of the legislation have highlighted the benefits of building modern, vibrant neighborhoods centered around transit stations and boosting rural Main Street communities. The bill would seek to use transportation dollars to promote that vision.

The state updates its official transportation goals every five years. This bill requires that state agencies make a stronger effort to stick to those goals. The categories of the state goals are quality of service, safety and security, system preservation, environmental stewardship, and connectivity for daily life.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:05 PM |
Categories: For policy wonks only

Traffic court bill gets final OK

The Senate just gave final approval to a House bill that would shift the burden to the driver who receives a ticket to request a trial in traffic court.

The bill, which passed unanimously, was a top priority for thye state's police chiefs because they believe it will save them millions of dollars in overtime paid to officers who go to traffic court for the trials of defendants who don't show up.

Once implemented, the bill will change the all-too-familiar routine for those who receive traffic tickets so that they don't receive and automatic court date. Rather, they will have to check off a box on the ticket and send it to the court requesting a date.

The measure brings Maryland into conformity with the overwhelming majority of states in their traffic court procedures.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:23 PM |
Categories: On the roads

Bicyclists weigh in on 3-foot rule

Sine die is not usually a day for rallies for or against legislation. Those events generally take place in February or March. But the state's bicyclists still have a bill they've been pushing for years in the balance today -- one that would require motorists to keep a 3-foot buffer between their vehicles and bicyclists.

It's a simple bill that many other states have adopted, but nothing concerning the relations between bicyclists and motor vehicles is simple. The bill crept out of a House committee just Friday, and it has to race through both houses to become law by midnight.

 The bicyclists' feeling about this bill we intensified by a recent fatal crash involving a bicyclist in Baltimore County, Lawrence Bensky, 43, of Owings Mills. They're expected to arrive -- by bicycle -- just about now for a noon rally. His widow, Tamara, is expected to attend. The Baltimore Bicycle Club and the University of Maryland School of Law Cycling Club are among the rally organizers.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:27 PM |

April 9, 2010

Bicycle '3-foot-rule' bill advances

A bill that would require that drivers observe a 3-foot buffer zone around bicyclists has emerged from the House Environmental Matters Committee -- potentially giving two-wheel enthusiasts a significant victory this legislative session.

Del. James Malone, chairman of the subcommittee that labored over the Senate-passed bill, said the vote was 18-4. It's expected to come to the House floor Saturday, and it's rare for a bill from that committee to be rejected on the floor.

The legislation is not a done deal, however. It emerged from the committee in an amended  form, which means it will have to go to the Senate for its agreement. With adjournment looming Monday night, any hangup could tank the bill.

Nevertheless, Malone said he is confident the bill will make its way through to enactment.

In more doubt is a bill dealing with when bicyclists must remain on the shoulder of the road. The committee is still grappling with language as the clock ticks down. If it passes, it is likely to do so in the final hours.



Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:59 PM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Bicycles, On the roads

House approves hand-held cell phone driving ban

The House of Delegates just voted 125-14 to approve an historic ban on driving while using a hand-held cell phone after rejecting a series of amendments.

Because the Senate has already passed the bill in the same form, the measure goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has said he will sign it.

The bill makes a driver's use of a hand-held cell phone while a vehicle is in motion a secondary offense, which means a police officer could not pull over a motorist unless the officer observes another violation. The bill makes  a first offense punishable by a $40 ticket; subsequent violations carry a $100 fine. The ban does not apply to hand-free calling such as that using Bluetooth devices. 

The bill is named after the late Del. John S. Arnick, who introduced the first legislation addressing driving while using a cell phone more than a decade ago.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the committee that unanimously approved the legislation, recalled that when Arnick first introduced the measure, hundreds of people would come to testify against it. Among the fierce opponents in those days were real estate agencts and the cellular phone companies themselves.

THis year, she said, not one person signed up in opposition.

McIntosh said that when Arnick introduced the original bill, there were two things you could do with a cell phone: make a call or receive a call.

Now, she said, "you can play games, tou can get on Facebook, you can tweet" -- among many other functions she listed.

"We all  know that people are multitasking. They're not just making phone calls," she said.

But Del. Michael Smigiel, a Cecil County Republican who offered a series of amendments that failed by crushing margins, said drivers were also subject to many distraction that don't involve cell phones -- shaving, applying makeup, reading books and newspapers among them.

"You can't legislate everything people do behind the wheel," he said. "Protect our freeedoms. Stop the nanny state."

The strong House vote contrasts with the narrow, 24-23 margin by which the measure passed the Senate.  In the Senate, most Republicans opposed the bill, but in the House more than half supported it on the final vote.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:57 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: On the roads

House approaches cell phone vote

It appears to be a few minutes before the House of Delegates will begin the debate leading to a final vote on the bill adopting a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

Opponents have prepared a series of amendments, but the House leadership is confident it has the  votes to defeat them all. Amending the bill would send it back to the Senate, a move supporters want to avoid because the Senate passed it by a 24-23 vote.

Once the amendments are disposed of the bill is expected to pass. The amendments are starting to fly now.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:42 PM |
Categories: On the roads

MARC to suspend express train (corrected)

CORRECTION: April 19 is the date of the change.

The Maryland Transit Administration is planning to suspend its 7:21 a.m. Penn Line express train from Union Station to Penn Station April 19 to accommodate track work Amtrak will be performing around Bowie.

The move has prompted grumbling among some of the regular riders of that train, but MARC director John Hovatter said there's little the MTA can do about it. Amtrak, after all, owns the tracks, and MARC must bend to operational necessities.

Hovatter said that even if MARC had continued to run the 7:21 a.m. train it would have been unable to do so as an express.  He said riders of that train will have two alternatives: the 506 operating nine minutes earlier and the 408 running 16 minutes later. Hovatter noted that the 506 makes only three stops between Washington and Baltimore.

"We are desperately trying to get another train out there," he said.

Richard Layman, a MARC rider who commutes  from Washington to Towson using train and bus, said the trip will add 21 minutes to a commute that already takes him two hours, 15 minutes. Layman said at least one other MARC rider is circulating a petition protesting the move, but he sounded resigned when told it was an Amtrak matter.

Hovatter said the track work will take all summer and that the MTA does not know now whether the chnage will be permanent. He said he wasn't sure what a petition could accomplish. "This is Amtrak's necessary track work, it is a fact of life," he said.

Layman said that's what has him concerned. "Lots of times these things are seized upon to make permanent changes," he said.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:34 PM |
Categories: MARC train

April 8, 2010

Lawmakers drop call for new Red Line study

A House-Senate conference committee has dropped language in the budget bill that would have called on the Maryland Transit Administration to conduct a new study of a heavy rail alternative to the current O'Malley administration plan to build it as a light rail line.

The Senate had proposed the language, which would also have required new studies on two proposed Washington suburban transit lines, after hearing testimony from foes of the current Red Line plan that new guidelines for transit projects promulgated by the Obama administration could open the door for heavy rail -- similar to Baltimore's Metro subway.


The MTA disputed that interpretation, saying the new guidelines provide no basis for reopening the fundamental plan decided upon by Gov. Martin O'Malley last summer.

House budget leaders -- led by Prince George's Del. Tawanna Gaines -- opposed the language. In the end, the House position prevailed -- in large part because of opposition from supporters of the proposed Purple Line in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Purple Line fans were no more eager for  delay than Red Line supporters.

Baltimore's deputy transportation director, Jamie Kendrick, credited Sen. Verna Jones with leading the charges against the language. According to Kendrick, she offered a compromise that Red Line foes refused.

Some Baltimore media outlets were persuaded to make a big deal over the Senate language, apparently not realizing that it was only committee "narrative" -- non-binding recommendations attached to the budget. Without money to pay for a new study, it was an essentally symbolic gesture, but the MTA argued that it could harm its chances for federal approval of its projects.

MTA deputy administrator Henry Kay said a full restudy of heavy rail could cost millions for the Red Line alone, while even going through the motions of a perfunctory study could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Foes of the Red Line might have a case, but their legislative strategy was really doomed from the get-go. In transportation, a "study" with no dollars behinds it is no study at all.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:32 PM | | Comments (7)

Ignition interlock bill may be on brink of failing

Representatives of MADD said the chairman of a House committee appears determined to kill a bill requiring ignition interlock devices to be installed on the vehicles of first-time convicted drunk drivers by moving it too late in this year's General Assembly to pass.

 MADD chief executive director Charles Hurley made that charge after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario failed to take up the Senate-passed bill during a voting session Thursday -- with only a few days remaining before Monday's adjournment.

Hurley said Vallario has been attempting to forge a consensus to weaken the bill by requiring a blood-alcohol level higher than .08 -- the legal threshold for driving under the influence -- for automatic installation for those found guilty of drunk driving the first time.

The MADD chief said his group would resist any such bill, arguing that a bill weaker than the one passed by the Senate would not save lives. Hurley said the bill -- his group's No. 1 priority for this year -- had already been watered down too much in the Senate by an amendment eliminating the requirement for first-time offenders who receive probation before judgment.

He said that if the bill isn't passed out of the panel Friday, it will likely be dead this session without the intervention of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Gov. Martin O'Malley.

This issue appears to be one that could remain in suspense down to the wire Monday night. But even if there's no action by Monday morning, remembers that a determined presiding officer such as Busch is capable of cutting through the niceties and making things happen if he  really wants a bill on the floor.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:15 PM |
Categories: On the roads

MDOT dodges a budget bullet

House budget leaders have fended off a Senate proposal to divert almost $60 million a year in sales tax revenue from the transportation trust fund to the general fund.

The Senate-House budget conference recently wrapped up negotiations during which conferees dropped a proposal that would have overriden current tax law under which the transportation fund would get 6.5 percent of sales tax revenues starting in the budget year starting in July 2013.

 The fund currently receives 5.2 percent. Legislative analysts proposed and the Senate adopted language that would have kept that level at 5.2 percent permanently. It was cut, supposedly temporarily, in 2008 to make way for abolition of a computer services tax.

Business groups such as the Greater Baltimore Committee, concerned about shortfalls in the state's transportation revenues, fought the move to divert money. House budget leaders agreed and won out -- for this year at least. Look for this proposal to resurface next year as the state continues to grapple with budget shortfalls.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:29 PM |

Amtrak on pace for a record year

It might be a sign of recovery or it could be an indicator of the hassle of air travel, but Amtrak is reporting that it is on a pace to break ridership records this year.

 According to the passenger railroads. the 13.6 million passengers it carried during the first six months of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, represent a 4.3 percent in increase from the  ridership in the October-March period the previous year. Taking into account the normally strong ridership during the summer months, that puts it on a pace to break the record set in fiscal 2008, when it carried 28.7 million passengers during the 12-month period.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    In the Northeast Corridor, the railroad said, ridership was up 2.9 percent on the high-speed Acela Express service and 4.7 on its Northeast Regional trains. But Amtrak reported double-digit increases for both services during March.

Amtrak also posted strong numbers for its long-distance trains, which have long depended heavily on federal subsidies. Those trains posted a 5.2 percent gain for the fiscal year so  far, and a thumping 16 percent gain in March alone. A half-dozen of its long-distance routes poster gains of more than 20 percent for the month, compared with last-year's recession-mired March.



Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:26 PM |
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads

Cell phone ban wins preliminary House approval

A bill that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving received preliminary approval from the House of Delegates thiks morning.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the measure isw on the schedule for a final vote tomorrow. The approval, which came without debate or proposed amendments, follows last night's unanimous approval of the measure in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

The bill would make use of an hand-held phone a violation punishable by a $40 for a first offense if the vewhicle is in motion. The legislation makes the violation a secondary offense, meaning a police officer couldn't stop a motorist unless the driver is otherwise breaking the law.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

Safety advocate Bronrott leaving House

Del. William A. Bronrott, one of the General Assembly's leading highway safety advocates, announced today that he will leave the House of Delegates to accept a high-ranking post in the Obama administration.

Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who was first elected in 1998, has been named deputy administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. That agency, which regulates interstate buses and trucking, is headed by Anne Ferro, former chief of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration.

Bronrott has sponsored numerous bills in the General Assembly concerning drunk driving, teen driver safety and other related topics. He has also been actively involved in federal transportation issues.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:29 AM |
Categories: For policy wonks only

April 7, 2010

So what will you do after cell phone ban?

If you read the post below, you'll see that Maryland is on the verge of joining the ranks of states that ban cell phone calling while driving.

So if you're a habitual cell phone talker behind the wheel, what's your plan? Defiance? Compliance? Going hand-free? And if you're one of those people who has been hit or nearly missed by a chatty driver, tell us how you feel.

Please include an email address and phone where you can be reached Thursday. Send messages to or post reactions to this blog. Thanks.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:02 PM | | Comments (8)

House panel votes unanimously for cell phone bill

he House of Delegates appears on the verge of passing a long-proposed but often-defeated ban on the use of hands-held cell phone while driving after a committee approved the measure unanimously.

The House Environmental Matters Committee approved the Senate bill late Wednesday afternoon with support ranging from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats.

Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, who took the lead in forging the consensus to pass the bill, said she would bring the measure to the floor Thursday. She said the votes are there to pass the bill without amendments and send it to Gov. Martin O’Malley for his signature.


McIntosh said even she was surprised to achieve a unanimous vote. She said it shows a growing understanding in the legislature and society that as technology changes, people are trying to do more while driving – from chatting on the phone to taking pictures to checking Facebook pages.

“”People are multitasking as they’re going down the roads these days,” she said. “I think this bill’s a great step forward.”

The legislation would make talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving a car in motion a secondary offense, meaning a violator would have to be breaking another law for a police officer to make a traffic stop.

There is an exception for using a hand-held device while stopped at a red light. Hands-free devices are not covered by the law. The fine for a first offense would be $40, with a $100 penalty for further violations.

MacIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said there was considerable support on the panel for making a violation a primary offense, meaning an officer could stop a motorist for that alone, but she said the committee decided to agree with the Senate’s determination to make it a secondary offense in view of the 24-23 margin by which it passed that chamber.

McIntosh said she didn’t want to risk losing the bill in the rush to Monday night’s adjournment by returning it to the Senate.

Some members of the committee expressed reservations about sending the bill to the House floor without attaching an amendment exempting push-to-talk radios such as those used by many truckers. But McIntosh said she would see that a measure making that exception was sent to the Senate on a separate bill.

Among those voting for the bill in spite of reservations about McIntosh’s strategy was the House Republican leader, Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell of Calvert County. Like McIntosh, he predicted it would pass, though not without some opposition.

O’Donnell said his vote reflects an evolution in the thinking of many members on the issue of cell phone use over the years. He told the committee he has reached the conclusion that “we have to do something.”

Even a member who had voted against the bill in the motor vehicles subcommittee said he reconsidered overnight.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, a Western Maryland Republican, said he felt bad about not satisfying truckers’ concerns about the push-to-talk exemption but believed action is needed. He said that in decideing how to vote he thought about the times “I caught myself on the rumble strip” while talking on a cell phone.

Some Democratic members of the committee expressed concern about passing a bill that exempted hands-free cell phones, pointing to studies showing a scant difference between the level of distraction using those devices and hand-held phones.

But Del. James Malone, chairman of the subcommittee that has grappled with the issue for the last two months, said the defensive driving courses he has taken as a firefighter have stressed the importance of controlling the vehicle in emergencies.

“If you have two hands on the wheel, you’ll be able to react a lot better,” the Baltimore Couinty Democrat said.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, Maryland would join six other states in explicitly banning the use of hand-held cell phones by all drivers. Those states -- California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington – would differ from Maryland by making it a primary offense. The District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have also enacted such bans.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:34 PM | | Comments (7)

House committee to vote on cell phone ban

The House Environmental Committee is about to vote on the cell phone ban in a form identical to the Senate bill. It appears welll on its way to passage with bipartisan support.

 The debate is largely favorable to the central concept. There are quibbles about the Senate bill's failure to exclude push-to-talk radios. Del. James Malone points out that the bill lets drivers use cell phones and radios when the vehicle is not in motion.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:21 PM |
Categories: On the roads

Senate approves bill raising auto liability limits

The Maryland Senate voted this morning to raise the minimum liability limits for vehicle owners' auto insurance for the first time in 38 years. The final vote was 27-20, sending the bill to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his signature.

The bill was approved after a stiff fight led by the Senate's Republicans, joined by a handful of Democrats.

The measure pitted the state's trial lawyers, and some of their clients, against insurance companies and advocates for the poor -- a point repeatedly made by GOP senators.

"This is the trial lawyers versus low-income poor people," said Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard County, the Republican leader.

But Sen. Rob Garagiola, the floor leader for the legislation, noted that the limits had been unchanged for 38 years.

"We should have addressed this situations 10-15 years ago and increased it to ($25,000) and ($50,000)," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

The bill is expected to affect about 200,000 Marylanders who carry the minimum amount of auto insurance. Most of the roughly 2 million policy holders who carry more comprehensive coverage are unlikely to be affected.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:32 AM |
Categories: On the roads

GOP puts in MAIF amendment of its old

Republican senators countered with a MAIF amendment of their own, which failed 14-32. There's some interesting political judo here, with the Senate's leading advocate of MAIF installments urging a rejection, urging Republicans to show their concern if and when her bill comes to the floor, and a Republican senator saying their support is a one-time-only offer.

Sen. E. J. Pipkin said GOP support wouldn't necessarily carry over onto a free-standing bill.

"Why should we have to be a future draft choice? You know, it's the Super bowl today," the Eastern Shore Republican said.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:13 AM |

Gladden withdrawns amendment, claims deal

Sen. Lisa Gladden told the Senate she will not offer her amendment on MAIF installment payments (see below), saying she has received a commitment of a vote on that issue in the Senate Finance Committee.

That apparently clears the way for passage of the underlying bill raising auto insurance minimums. We're back to Republican amendments, which if past is precedent are all going down in flames.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:00 AM |

Senate gears for fireworks on insurance

Blogging from the floor of the Maryland Senate: What could be a fascinating political test is scheduled to come up here this morning as the Senate considers an amendment planned by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden to a bill raising the minimum auto insurance coverage for Maryland vehicle owners for the first time in 38 years.

 Those limits, now set at $20,000 per person and $40,000 per crash, would increase to $30,000 and $60,000 under the proposed bill, which is strongly supported by trial lawyers and opposed by insurance companies.

 According to Senate sources, Gladden plans to introduce an amendment giving customers of the Maryland Auto Insurance Fund the right to pay in installments -- a proposal fiercely fought be certain lenders who specialize in lending MAIF policy holders the money to pay heavy lump sum payments.

Opponents of the underlying legislation are hoping to see the amendment to added to the bill, forcing the legislation back to the House and possibly throwing a monkey wrench into the works.

Gladden, who voted for the increased minimums in committee, could presumably still cut a deal that would let the bill -- which has the strong support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- go through unimpeded.

Stay tuned. We'll report the votes on the bill and the amendment as soon as they happen.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:32 AM |

April 6, 2010

Insurance minimum bill delayed at brink of passage

A bill that would raise the minimum level of liability coverage for owners of vehicles in Maryland reached the verge of approval Tuesday before it became enmeshed in a loosely related struggle -- giving opponents hope they could scuttle the measure.

The bill would raise the minimum a vehicle owner must carry from the current $20,000 per person and $40,000 per crash to $30,000 and $60,000 respectively.

The bill’s passage could raise insurance premiums for as many as 200,000 Marylanders who carry the minimum level of coverage. Opponents, led by insurance companies but backed by advocates for the poor, warned that the impact would fall hardest on low-income workers who can barely afford coverage as it is.

But supporters of the bills, including plaintiff’s lawyers and clients who had been limited in how much that could collected after crashes in which another person was at fault, pointed out that the minimums had not been raised since the early 1970s.

 The bill came up on the Senate floor Tuesday, but Republican opponents battered it with a flurry of amendments. But each was turned aside comfortably by the Democratic majority.

The Republicans had run out of amendments and the bill was apparently on the verge of final approval when Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Democratic supporter of the measure, sought to  delay a vote by a day so she could offer an amendment of her own. The Senate agreed to the delay despite the opposition of Senate Preident Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, would not comment on the subject of her planned amendment, but senators said it is expected to involve a long-running dispute over payments to the Maryland Auto Insurance Fund. Gladden and some other African-American legislators want to let policy holders with MAIF, the state's insurer of last resort, pay their steep premiums in installments. They are opposed by financing companies that have built a thriving business on loans to MAIF customers to make  their lump-sum payments and by rival insurance companies.

Legislation that would address the issue has been hung up in the Senate Finance Committee, and Gladden's move is an apparent end run around the panel.

Sen. Rob Garagiola, the Senate sponsor of the insurance minimums bill, said he would fight the attempt to lump the two controversies together.

Miller said he sympathizes with the effort to allow installment payments but doesn't believe the matter should be grafted onto the insurance minimums measure.

"It bypasses the process," Miller said.

Nevertheless, the possibility of a vote on a MAIF amendment raised optimism among opponents of the insurance minimums bill, who hope to put together a coalition of GOP lawmakers and African-Americans to approve the amendment and force the issue back to the House.

The surprise amendment followed a lively debate on the bill.

Sen. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican, tried to amend the bill to delay the increase for two years, arguing that low-income Marylanders can't afford it at a time of economic recession.

Glassman picked up support from the Democratic side as Sen. Delores Kelley of Baltimore County urged approval of the amendment. "If we made it 38 years, we can wait till this recession is over," she said. The amendment failed 16-28.

Pipkin also offered a tongue-in-cheek amendment renaming the bill the Trial Lawyer Relief Act of 2010, arguing that it would create a pool of $100 million in extra money available for judgments or settlements.

Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, countered that it should be called the Reduce the Uncompensated Care Act for its potential to reduce the amount of money hospitals lose caring for injured patients who can't collect enough from insurers to cover their bills.

The amendment failed on an 11-32 vote.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:26 PM |
Categories: Light rail

Cell-phone driving ban clears another hurdle

A ban on driving while talking on a hands-held cell phone appears to be on the verge of passage as House members rallied around a strategy that could make the bill law without further action by a closely divided Senate.

The motor vehicles subcommittee of the House Environmental Matters Committee voted 8-1 Tuesday at approve the Senate-passed cell phone ban without amendments. The bill is expected to be approved by the full committee Wednesday and will likely come to the House floor by the end of the week.

If the House approves the bill sponsored by Sen. Norman Stone without amendments,  it will go to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his signature without having to be considered again by the Senate, where its squeaked by on a 24-23 vote.

The Stone bill makes talking on a hand-held cell phone a secondary violation, meaning a police officer could not pull over a driver who is not committing some offense as well as breaking the cell phone ban. Hands-free devices would be exempt under the bill.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:13 PM |
Categories: On the roads

April 5, 2010

Circulator carries 100,000th passenger

The Charm City Circulator, the free bus service inaugurated by the Baltimore Department of Transportation in January, tallied its 100,000 passenger last week.

City officials say the bus service, which now consists of one route that runs from the Hollins Market to Harbor East, has been carrying about 1,200 riders a day. According to officials, the ridership has exceeded their expectations.

The city expects to  add two more routes when it takes delivery of enough buses to provide the service. One will run from the Cross Street Market area to Penn Station; the other will connect Johns Hopkins Hospital, Fells Point, Harbor East and City Hall.

City officials  identified the 100,000th passenger as Tyrone Harris of Baltimore, who boarded the bus last Thursday. He will be recognized in a ceremony Tuesday at Harborplace.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 6:38 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: City bus service

Second Senate committee OKs insurance bill

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved a bill raising Maryland's minimum auto insurance liability coverage from $20,000 per victim and $40,000 per crash to $30,000 and $60,000. The vote was 8-3. The Senate Finance Committee approved the same bill, which has already passed the House, last week on a 6-5 vote. Insurance companies are fighting the bill, which has the support of the state's trial lawyers.
Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:41 PM |
Categories: On the roads

Insurers, lawyers clash over insurance bill

Both trial lawyers and insurers tried to put a human face on their positions for against legislation that would increase the minimum amount of auto insurance Maryland vehicles owners must carry.

The lawyers brought out three auto crash victims whose medical bills were not covered by minimum  policies with liability limits of $20,000 person and $40,000 per crash. Insurers rallied support from groups that advocate for low-income people, aruging that the poor couldn't afford the higher premiums that would result.


"We are seriously concerned about what this will do to the most vulnerable people in the state," said Melissa Broome of the Job Opportunities Task Force.

But trial lawyer Frank Boston said 90 percent of his clients who are injured in auto crashes are also low-income people.

The minimum insurance levels have not been changed in 38 years.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:12 PM |
Categories: For policy wonks only

MADD outraged by ignition compromise talk

MADD has alerted its members and supporters to call House Speaker Michael E. Busch to express their support for passage of a bill requiring ignition interlock devices to be installed on the cars of all persons convicted of drunk driving -- without any of the weakening amendments under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee.

Sources in Annapolis report that the committee and its chairman, Del. Joseph Vallario, are inclined to support the bill with a provision requiring installation of the devices for first time offenders only if they are found to have a blood-alcohol level of .12 or .15. Driving with a bloood alcohol level of .08 is grounds for automatic conviction of driving under the influence. MADD has resisted any efforts to define levels of blood alcohol at or around .08 as something less than drunk.

There is by now a well-worn path to the speaker's office for safety advocates and others who object to Vallario's handling of his committee, a well-known graveyard for strong drunk driving bills. Because the speaker appoints committee chairs, he is the one official Vallario has to pay attention to. (Listening to governors is optional.)

The ignition interlock bill is MADD's No. 1 priority for this legislative session. A version without the amendments restricting the requirement to "super-drunks" passed the Senate 44-0.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:12 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads

Light rail service to Hunt Valley restored

Light rail service to Hunt Valley is up and running today after being shut down for two weeks after a tractor-trailer collided with a train at Gilroy Road, damaging the tracks and overhead power lines.

Since the March 23 crash, which seriously injured the train's operator, trains had not served the stations north of Timonium. The Maryland Transit Administration operated a bus shuttle between Timonium and Hunt Valley.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:16 PM |
Categories: Light rail

April 1, 2010

Here's the skinny on cell phone, drunk driving bills

It was a glorious day in Annapolis: blue skies, perfect temperatures, the leisurely pace that sets in on the day the committees hold their parties. Just a perfect day for schmoozing and taking the temperature on transportation related bills.

 Here’s where some of them stand:

Cell phone ban: According to Del. James Malone, chairman of the subcommittee handling the bill, the House plan is to bring two bills out of the subcommittee and committee Tuesday.


One will be the unamended Senate bill, which makes driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone a secondary offense (the cop can only stop you if you’re doing something else illegal in addition to yakking behind the wheel). The other will be the House bill with an amendment creating an exemption for truckers using press-and-talk radios.

The idea is that if the Senate accepts the House amendment and passes that bill again, the trucking industry is happy and that bill becomes law – presuming Gov. Martin O’Malley signs it. If the Senate bill passes the House, it goes to the governor without having to return to the Senate.

The two-pronged plan is a prudent response to the narrow margin by which the bill passed the Senate, 24-23. The House is seeking to avoid a conference committee that would give Senate foes another shot at killing the bill.

Of course, the bills will still have to muster majorities to repel killer amendments (in practical terms, any floor amendments) and for final House passage. But Malone is cautiously optimistic that will happen. If all goes according to plan, it could be a done deal by the end of next week.

Ignition interlock: The word on the street is that the bill that would make the technology that prevents people with alcohol system from starting their vehicles after a first-time drunk-driving conviction will pass this year – but only with an amendment that MADD and other proponents might have a hard time swallowing.

The bill, which easily passed the Senate, is expected to be amended in the House Judiciary Committee to require the devices for first-timers only when the perpetrator falls into the “super-drunk” category in blood-alcohol level. Whether that will be set at a .12 or .15 – as opposed to the 0.8 level that qualifies as driving under the influence -- is said to be the only question.

The reasoning seems to be that the General Assembly can always come back and strengthen the law but that it wouldn’t ever have the option of dialing it back – even if it proved unworkable. Best guess: The Senate accepts the compromise, proponents declare a qualified victory and the issue comes back in future session.

Traffic court: The bill that would put the burden on people who receive a ticket in a traffic case to request a trial if they want one appears to be on its way to passage. There are minor differences between the bill that passed the Senate and the one approved by the House Judiciary Committee but nothing that can’t be worked out well before the eleventh hour. Passage would be a big victory for the state’s police chiefs, who believe the change could save them a ton in overtime.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 6:31 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: For policy wonks only

House rejects Senate call for Red Line restudy

The state budget for fiscal 2011 came up for debate on the House of Delegates floor today, with a key difference in the language concerning Baltimore's proposed Red Line connecting Woodlawn and Bayview.

The Senate had included language instructing the Maryland Transit Administration to conduct a full study of heavy rail and alternate paths for the Red Line -- as well as the Washington-area Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway projects. The House rejected that language. The matter will have to be hashed out in a conference committee next week. (Maryland Politics Watch has a good article on this subject.)

One of the key reasons was that by lumping in the Washington-area projects with the more controversial Red Line, the Seante would expose them to delays as well.

My bet is that the House will prevail on this because the Senate language -- while it seemed to give groups such as the Transit Riders Action Council everything they want -- was essentially hollow. While calling for a "full study," the Senate provided no money to do so.

A "full study," in transportation terms, is neither inexpensive nor quick. It's an exhaustive process that can take years. In addition, the MTA contends it already gave heavy rail -- a subway like the current Metro --  all the study it merited. An unfunded study would likely lead to nothing more than a restatement of the MTA's current position.

If any language regarding these transit lines is adopted at all, it is likely to be so weak as to be meaningless. Additional language in the Senate bill requiring the MTA to come up with a payment plan 45 days after submitting plans for the projects to the federal government is also clearly a nonstarter unless the intent to to block all three -- a highly doubtful prospect given that Baltimore and the  Washington suburbs both have stakes in the projects moving forward. That's simply too soon in the process to put money on the table. That won't happen until the feds have rendered a decision.

Meanwhile, the House also rejected budget language that would divert almost $60 million a year that had been scheduled to go toward transportation starting in 2013 to the general fund. The Senate had proposed to cancel a planned increase in the percentage of the state sales tax going to transportation. Under current law, itransportation's share would go from 5.2 percent to 6.5 percent of the sales tax starting in the budget that begins July 1, 2013.  

Once again, the House is in a stronger position here. For one thing, lawmakers know the Transportation Trust Fund is already in dire condition and will need a post-election transfusion. For another, the Senate is getting out front on an issue that needn't be dealt with this year. In the legislative game, indecision trumps decision whenever a decision isn't urgently required.




Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:26 PM | | Comments (1)
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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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