Lessons from the ICC for transit advocates

If there's a lesson to be learned from the decades of stall-and-sprawl policy leading up to this weekend's scheduled opening of the Intercounty Connector, it's that major transportation projects in Maryland don't move forward unless voters and the community are truly engaged and galvanized in their support.

Advocates of such projects as Baltimore's proposed Red Line may think they have that kind of intense community support, but my experiences with the ICC taught me that that such a project requires a level of voter engagement far beyond anything we are seeing on transportation today.

Remember that a decade ago, the ICC was far from a sure thing. A Texas Transportation Institute study found that Montgomery County drivers were spending more time stuck in gridlock than on vacation — in excess of 80 hours a year. Yet, many of that jurisdiction's elected officials were lukewarm, at best, in their feelings on the ICC. Many flat-out opposed it.

Supporters of the ICC recognized that they needed to turn things around if this "One Maryland" connector from Interstate 270 to Interstate 95 was ever going to be built as an alternate route for linking central Montgomery County to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Baltimore.

Then-Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce president Richard Parsons and I developed an issue advocacy organization, and our goal was to make the 2002 Montgomery County election all about traffic and transportation. Our research — focused on voters' attitudes, not policy — surprised everyone, showing traffic outranked even education as the No. 1 concern for Montgomery County residents.

We knew we had won when The Washington Post previewed the primary election on its front page with the headline: "Montgomery caught up in traffic; in nearly every political race, gridlock is the key issue." The lead of the article featured our cheeky pro-ICC television ad, "A Day on the Beltway is No Day at the Beach."

We had succeeded in making the election about traffic, and we made our cause — the ICC — the answer to that problem. "Traffic congestion in Montgomery County has become a litmus test politically for voters," our pollster, Keith Haller, told The Washington Post at the time. "I can't recall an issue like traffic transcending all other issues this quickly and this aggressively."

By Election Day, our support — together with a "Go Montgomery!" transportation plan pushed by then-County Executive Doug Duncan and then-Councilman Steve Silverman — catapulted a pro-ICC slate of candidates onto the Montgomery County Council. These newly elected candidates (as well as the newly elected Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.) came into office believing they had a mandate to get the ICC financed and built.

What does that mean for today's biggest transportation projects — whether it's the Baltimore Red Line or high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor?

I would argue that Baltimore's transit advocacy community is too fractured, and too apolitical, to successfully engage and galvanize voters. You can't just keep hoping that high-minded policy objectives will be effectuated by politicians who never hear about transit during campaign season.

For example, look to the urgent monikers of Montgomery's fierce transit advocates: Purple Line Now, or Action Committee for Transit (ACT). I don't sense that political fervor and accountability in the Baltimore region to support transportation thought-leaders like the Greater Baltimore Committee's Donald Fry.

If a Baltimore City councilman like Jim Kraft isn't going to aggressively push for a Red Line to bring jobs and economic development to his Southeast Baltimore district, then supporters of the Red Line need to find a candidate who will — and work to make the campaign a referendum on the Red Line's future. (In fact, one anti-Red line opponent has already been vanquished: my friend, former state Sen. George Della.)

If Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is going to be bold enough to push for a Federal Center to anchor the Red Line in Woodlawn, he'll need regional political support to reverse a federal decision to build a new Social Security data center on a sprawling rural campus in Frederick County.

Remember, the Red Line is far from a done deal. It is in competition with similar proposed projects across the country for federal New Start dollars. It was going to be super-competitive enough with Democrats in charge.

These are the political accountability moments that we in the pro-transportation community need to take responsibility for — together — if our region is going to fund the next round of ambitious projects.

Damian O'Doherty is a principal at Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs in Baltimore. He was a top adviser to former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, and was co-founder of the 527 group Citizens for Quality Living in 2002. His e-mail is do@kopublicaffairs.com.

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