Perhaps the most memorable line from last week’s Regional Transportation Forum sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade was offered by the Maryland DOT’s new Secretary, Peter Rahn.
Rahn, a long-time transportation leader and innovator, said that one of the only things he remembers verbatim from his college studies in planning was the following summary of what it means to be a government executive. Rahn told the audience of over 150 political and industry leaders that his professor taught him that “government is the art of allocating limited resources to insatiable wants.”
That quotation summarized perfectly the core challenges facing Rahn, Virginia DOT Secretary Aubrey Layne, Jr., and District of Columbia DOT Director Leif Dormsjo. All three CEOs bring to their new positions impressive records of accomplishment in transportation and in related fields of public policy and accounting. All three must make soon some fundamental and fairly momentous decisions that could shape the future of the Greater Washington Region.
For Dormsjo, a former Deputy Secretary of the Maryland DOT, he inherited the troubled and controversial DC Streetcar project. Some transit experts have labeled this effort “the worst transit project in America” – quite the distinction. Just weeks before Dormsjo’s boxes arriving in his new office, the DC Streetcars endured a series of accidents with vehicles along the 2.2-mile line, a fire in one of the brand-new cars, and continued complaints from local residents and pedestrians who didn’t quite know how to interact with the new system.
On behalf of newly-elected DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Director Dormsjo promised a top-to-bottom review of the project, making no promises that even the short route relatively close to opening would survive. Shaking his head, he told the audience that in some ways, the project represented the prototypical putting the “streetcar before the horse,” as the cars themselves were purchased about 10 years ago, in the absence of a true plan about how the new system would link to other existing facilities or where potential routes would travel. Dormsjo concluded that while the Streetcar project has a worthy purpose and need, there was no excuse for “backwards planning.”
For his part, Secretary Layne (a relative veteran on the job for 15 months) took office at a time when his agency, a national leader in P3 projects, was told by the state legislature to reform how it reviewed and promoted P3s. Layne is clearly a strong proponent of the P3 model, saying that “every project in the Commonwealth is privately financed in some way.” Even so, the Secretary told Board of Trade President Jim Dinegar that every P3 project has a different “risk profile” and identifying and managing that risk up front, was his agency’s greatest challenge.
Back to Secretary Rahn, it was obvious that the “Purple Haze” hanging over the room was his agency’s promised economic review of the proposed Purple Line transit project. Upon taking office, his boss, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, ordered a delay in the P3 solicitation for that project in order to give the potential bidders time to propose true cost reductions for the $2.4 billion project. “What I’m asking for,” Rahn suggested, “is to give me a solid Chevrolet, not a Cadillac.” Amidst laughter from the gathering, I overheard one politician say to a colleague, “I wonder if he’d settle for a Buick?” Fully aware that a deadline to utilize a $900 million USDOT grant is fast approaching, Rahn promised that new bids would be received and reviewed this summer.
The forum was refreshing and candid. The three CEOs, although they just recently met together for the first time, clearly like and respect each other. All of them spoke sincerely of regional cooperation over challenges like Metro funding and safety, project approval streamlining, and of course, lobbying Congress for a sustained, long-term source of transportation funding.
How these leaders manage the “insatiable wants” of their constituents (as so strongly represented by the Forum attendees) will take all their talents and judgment. One thing seemed clear: none of the CEOs will shy away from a potentially unpopular, but a sound fiscal and engineering decision. I wonder if there will be as many smiles at next year’s Board of Trade Transportation Forum?