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Commentary By Washington Post Columnist Robert McCartney

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WAMU: Let’s start off in Maryland. Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson pleaded guilty this week to charges of extortion and evidence tampering. Johnson had originally said he was going to fight all of these charges. What do you make of his plea?

McCartney: Well I don’t think he has much choice. The wiretap evidence against him was just overwhelming. He initially said he was going to clear his name. But when you read the plea agreement, it was clear he’d been shaking down developers for illegal payments starting early in his first term as county executive.

WAMU: We’ve been hearing more about his arrests back in November about ethics reform in Prince George’s County. To what extent are we seeing changes?

McCartney: Well there certainly has been progress since Rashurn Baker took office in early December as the new county executive. Baker and others backed two bills that were backed by the state general assembly earlier this year. One of them would make it harder for the county council to delay improvements of development projects. Critics say that the council often gets too involved in the nitty gritty of the zoning decisions and permits, and that effectively becomes an invitation to developers and others to make payments or do favors for council members and others in order to move the process along. So that’s not going to be completely fixed, but improved.

The other bill closes a campaign finance loophole so the developers would have pending cases before the county council can no longer donate money to council members while those cases are being considered. These are steps in the right direction for sure. But it’s worth noting that both measures were watered down in the state legislature because of pressure, because of opposition from the county council. So there was push-back from the reform efforts, even in the current environment, even at a time when the current county executive Jack Johnson was under federal indictment for corruption on charges in which he’s now pleaded guilty.

WAMU: Let’s turn now to Virginia where we’ve heard more opposition on the latest plans for Metrorail to Dulles Airport. Loudoun County is looking for ways to opt out of funding phase two of that agreement, which now involves an underground Metro station. How serious are these threats?

McCartney: Well I think it looks pretty serious and I think something has got to give. This is a major dispute over how to pay for the second phase over expending Metrorail’s service over to Dulles Airport. The head of the Washington Airport’s task force, which is a non-profit, said this week the biggest problem facing area airports since Reagan National was close for several weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Right now it’s basically a fight between the Washington Metro Airport Authority and Fairfax and Loudoun counties and Virginia state governments on the other side. Keep in mind that the first phase is already set. So we’re really talking about the funding for the second phase, which builds from Dulles Airport and beyond. The costs are up partly because of inflation, but also because the airport authority made this very controversial decision to spend $300 million to put the metro station at Dulles underground, rather than above. But the local governments are saying that’s a luxury and they don’t want to pay for it.

A big political fallout here is the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. The fact is that tolls are going to pay for more than half of the cost of this rail extension, and the higher the cost, the higher the tolls. Some of the forecasts of where these tolls could be by 2020 or later are really jaw dropping – I mean we’re talking $14 or $15 one-way.

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