Thursday, July 30, 2015

New Ellicott City Staircase in Action

This video was posted to the Old Ellicott City (Historic District) page last night and was too cool not to share:

Credit: Cecilia Lane

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bus Rapid Transit: A Sparkle in Someone's Eye

I don't think I've read as many conditional statements of ambiguous support as can be found in this article about the possibility of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Howard County.  I don't blame the reporter, Andrew Michaels - this is a news story, but it is as close to a possibility as "that novel you're thinking about writing".

First of all, I appreciate the County Executive's willingness to explore this possibility.  He has put some great people on his Public Transportation Board and I know they will take this seriously.  The hearing was last night and I look forward to hearing more.

Second, we need to get serious about public transportation in Howard County.  We're spending a fair amount of money on a system that very few people use, but for those people that green bus is a lifeline of immeasurable importance.  I would love to see an initiative focused on increasing the utilization rate for mass transit, which may include greater awareness of routes, schedules, and connectivity with other transit systems (MTA, Light Rail, BWI, DC Metro).  It bears mentioning that poor utilization may be the result of affluence.  Why double (or even triple) your commute time when you can pay more to get there in a fraction of the time?  The answer is that if we had better utilization, those comparative commute times may come closer in line, congestion would be less, and we would be transporting ourselves in a more environmentally sound manner.

Third, there's a chance that our demand for public transportation may outpace our ability to produce it.  I know this is in apparent contradiction to the paragraph immediately preceding this, but my concern relates to Town Center parking.  Don't get too used to it.  I don't think Howard Hughes is interested in maintaining acres of free pavement.  Parking will always be available in Downtown, but it will not be free (despite a recent contention that "free parking" came after "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence).  Parking costs are a big reason why I often choose the Metro when heading into DC and I can see similar considerations putting me on the green bus when I want to go to the Lakefront.

Finally, as great a BRT may be, it will come with sacrifice.  In addition to the economic cost, "rapid transit" presumes preference for the bus over other vehicles by way of dedicated bus lanes.  The best advertisement for BRT is seeing a bus drive by you unimpeded while you sit in traffic.  That means lanes on the highways and byways of Howard County that you cannot use.  BRT is not without controversy in this regard.

Overall, this is a very good thing for Howard County.  Millennials want and expect mass tran options.  Many don't own (or want) a car.  Are we planning for the future or sitting on the past?

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

#HoCoHealth Nutritional Standards Poll

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ellicott City Stimulus: "Federal Welfare" to "Free WiFi"

We received some exciting news earlier this week with the announcement that "Free WiFi" has been installed in Ellicott City.  I've used it at least five or six times since it was installed and find it to be a great addition to Main Street.  You can even access the network at the Roger Carter Center to stream music while you workout!

As reported by Amanda Yeager with the Howard County Times, this is of no (direct) cost to Howard County taxpayers.  The project receives its funding from revenue generated by leasing access to the Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN) to private businesses.  Money from the sky, right?  Sort of.  As you all will remember, the ICBN was funded by a $115 million federal grant under the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (part of President Obama's federal Stimulus Package), $72 million of which was managed by the Ulman Administration for the installation of broadband fiber across nine jurisdictions with matching funds from state and local budgets.

That sounds like quite the expense.

And, as with any large expense, it was controversial.  Republicans reject the concept of "stimulus spending" in general and opposed this (big S) Stimulus Package in particular.  You may recall that it was around the 2010-2013 period that we were hearing about it being time to "tighten our belts" and that the government should make the same budget cuts that families across the country were making.  Republicans here in Maryland, and even Howard County, were suggesting that O'Malley should reject any stimulus funds (including those targeted for the ICBN) and that these funds were "federal welfare payments".

"Federal welfare" sounds so much nicer when you call it "Free WiFi".

 The fact of the matter is that investments in our infrastructure, whether in good times or bad, are almost always a good bet.  In this case, federal, state, and local spending, during a very bad time, have provided a consistent source of revenue in a much better time.  Not only that, these funds have been used to promote economic and quality of life improvements years after the money was spent.  I'm not saying that you have to have loved every part of the Stimulus Package to love the ICBN, but I am saying you need to be particularized with your dissent.  If you want to say that this was an irresponsible expenditure, you have to do it in the context of great projects like "Free" WiFi in Ellicott City.

Maybe instead of naming the network FreeHoCoGovWiFi it should have been "ThanksObama".

Have a great Friday doing what you love.  It's impossible not to.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Excited yet?

I was recently talking with a few friends about local politics when the subject of engagement came up.  They said they certainly cared about what was happening around town, but that nothing made them "excited".  To summarize, "If you want me to engage and get my friends to engage, give me something to get excited about."

Now, if you've read this blog for any amount of time, you can imagine my response: "What do you mean you're not 'excited'?  What are you looking for?" (In varying tones of incredulity and offense).

I would respectfully suggest that no matter our different opinions, we've been discussing important policy.  Food policy and public health measures like the vaping ban seem to be where future political debates will be held.  Some of them at least.  But unless you are a pediatrician or avowed public health advocate, these issues aren't getting your heartbeat up.  Please don't read this to say these issues aren't important.  They are.  And, as I've said before, I am a strong advocate for what our Council is working to do.  I just think we need to accept the fact that we're not seeing the full actualization and involvement of passionate citizens and there may be a reason for that.

Unless you're debating the other side.  And it seems that this is where the excitement has been manufactured.  The reason local politics "seems" exciting is because it has become controversial.  I can assure you that I don't look forward to, or necessarily enjoy, writing adversarial posts.  I believe certain concerns merit attention and that advocacy is the only effective avenue for recourse.  Less formal (and less public) avenues of advocacy have been foreclosed, so, hence, the blog.

People will tire of the conflict and controversy.  Some already have.  Sustained attention and advocacy will require substance; those base nutrients that made us feel like local politics or politics in general were subjects worthy of our interest.  Even more remarkable are those issues that break outside the "Bubble" and touch the cognizance of "regular citizens".

What do these issues look like?  Right or left, I believe such matters are those that make life better. Our weights lighter.  Our stressors defanged.  And yes, I accept that there is a well-entrenched political philosophy stating that this is expressly not the role of government and that we should really just expect government to "get out of the way".  Fair enough, but even under that analysis, isn't the goal to "make life better"?

And so long as I am acknowledging your philosophy, you should understand mine - I think there are elements of our society that operate like a maw.  They tear and crush the weak and unprepared.  The only thing that has ever stood in between us and that maw has been the conscience of an enlightened democracy.  For every long line at the MVA, I will point to life-changing measures in the Americans with Disabilities Act.  For every stereotypical bureaucrat, I will introduce you to a social worker guiding an orphan through foster care.  We can't legislate our societal ills away, but we can do a pretty good job of rounding off the edges.

If you're not excited yet, wait.  I think there are some good things coming down the pike for you.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Orphan Bridge

Bridge Columbia appears to be stuck.  The bridge intended to connect Oakland Mills to Town Center received bipartisan support in the race for County Executive and supporters had reason to believe that this would be a high priority budget item in FY2016.  Then candidate Allan Kittleman sent a letter to the CA Board of Directors ( with a copy to Friends of Bridge Columbia) stating that he fully supported the project and looked forward to working with the group to bring the bridge to fruition:

Unfortunately for Bridge Supporters, and fortunate for the County Executive, the language of this resolution provides a fairly expedient escape hatch - "...immediate action by county, state, and federal officials to begin replacement of the existing pedestrian bridge...."  We all know how this goes - "You know there is not a stronger advocate for X in all of Y, but I tell ya what folks, I just can't get Z to budge on this issue, so we're just going to have to wait."  You would be hard pressed to find a more well-worn tactic of executive governance than a good ole fashioned buck passing.

And this works if you want to believe what you're hearing.  It just doesn't hold up to scrutiny.  Last February, we saw what happens when an Executive wants funding for their County - they lobby those who have the ability to provide support (publicly or privately depending on what kind of news coverage they want to generate and how much they are willing to embarrass fellow politicians for political gain).

Even if this kind of lobbying were already underway, both state and federal funders often, if not always, require a budget to be in place with County skin in the game before they are willing to participate.  Said otherwise, they don't play go fish.  "Do you have any $6 million bonds you can give my County?  Go fish."

And finally, these funds need to meet a state or federal priority to justify support.  I'm just not sure that's here, particularly since the Governor has recently announced priority funding for road projects over public transit.  That would seem to put a project premised on the need for public transit in a bad spot.

Amanda Yeager with the Columbia Flier recently wrote a piece describing conversations between the County Council and Friends of Bridge Columbia.  It doesn't take too hard of a read to see that the Council is getting squeezed.  The County Executive assures supporters that this Bridge is going to happen, but doesn't fund it in his budget and has yet to undertake any public campaign to obtain federal or state funds.  The Council then has to follow up and explain just how far off this project is from completion, while having the least control over lobbying for funds, drafting budgets, or setting capital budget priorities.  Which of the two meetings do you think was the more fun to attend?

I am optimistic that a bridge will be built sometime over the next four years.  I do not think it is going to be the Bridge that candidate Allan Kittleman supported on October 10, 2014.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

No Skateboarding

There are certain parts of Howard County parks where you may not skateboard.  It is not because Howard County doesn't think parents know what's best for their child or otherwise wishes to run the lives of Howard County skateboarders.  It is simply because 1) Howard County owns the land, and 2) It would not be safe to skateboard at that location.

In fact, it would be irresponsible for Howard County to allow you to skateboard in those areas.  The County could certainly leave well enough alone and tell residents "If you think this is a safe place to skateboard, you do that, but you're responsible for the consequences."  But as the entity offering the park, the County has seen fit to make rules for how that park will be enjoyed.  These considerations remain for all of the various prohibitions of what is allowed and disallowed on park property.

And it has nothing to do with our "freedom".

This post obviously relates to Nutritional Standards.  The thrust of the County Executive's public opposition to the bill seems to be premised on freedom, self-determination, and a misrepresentation of what the bill actually does.  If you want to avoid some of the semantic de-pantsing that I've seen on social networks recently, I can't recommend reading the bill highly enough.

A quick FAQ:
Can you still buy sugary drinks?  You betcha.
Does this bill ban anything? Nope.
Is this bill primarily focused on youth-oriented facilities? Yes.

Ultimately, This bill is premised on the very basic idea that Howard County should take responsibility for what it sells to the public, particularly minors.  It has absolutely nothing to do with telling you how to live your life.  If that is how you see the world, Whole Foods must really piss you off.

But the bill was vetoed.  Essentially with the words, "who is Howard County to tell Howard County what to do?"

My question in response is two-fold "Does Howard County, as a legal entity, have the freedom to determine what it will sell to the public?  Or is it circumscribed by the commercial interests involved?"

We should be thankful that skateboarding companies haven't mustered a lobbying fund because you can be absolutely sure that skateboarding is, in fact, banned in public places throughout Howard County (not just parks).  And it's not because people think they know better than you.  It's because that is the responsible thing to do.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!