Metropolitanism by Stealth

January 07, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

The history of metropolitan government in Central Maryland falls in three phases. The third appears about to start.

In the first phase, no metropolitan structures were admitted while a bountiful city provided. Surrounding counties nestled in its largess.

The best view of this golden age is high above the Gunpowder Falls from the Prettyboy dam in northern Baltimore County. The old bronze plaque on the crumbling dam names the city fathers who built the thing.

The metropolitan water supply and sewer systems are the most necessary and visible signs of metropolitan government. They were built, and are operated, by the city.

The city built Friendship Airport serving Maryland and Washington.

When art lovers sought a major Baltimore Museum of Art to usher in the 1920s, the city built it and employed the staff. When the time came to bring Major League baseball to usher in the 1950s, the city refurbished Memorial Stadium.

These were amenities for all Central Maryland, like the Baltimore Zoo, which through the 1960s was unfenced for Marylanders to drive up to their favorite exhibits maintained at city taxpayer expense.

The second phase of metropolitan government began in the 1960s and is still on. Metropolitan structures still hardly exist, but the state replaced the city in providing regional services.

The late Regional Planning Council, bargaining arena of city and county governments with bureaucracy attached -- required by federal law for highway planning -- was a state agency. (Now it is privatized as the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and less substantial.)

When private ownership of the Port of Baltimore was deemed insufficient, the Port Administration that was created to take it over was a state agency. As such, it could be extended to operate the Port of Cambridge on the Eastern Shore.

When the city lacked capital to expand Friendship Airport, it ''sold'' what became BWI to the state.

When the private bus company serving Baltimore compelled a public takeover, a state agency, the Mass Transit Administration, was created to operate the buses.

Only later did MTA get into the subway-construction business, and then light rail. As a state agency not restricted to Baltimore, ,, it was expanded by the Schaefer administration to provide bus service outside Metropolitan Baltimore and to operate the state commuter railroad serving Washington and Baltimore.

The great symbol of change is the baseball stadium. The state-built Oriole Park at Camden Yards replaced the city-built Memorial Stadium, to house a baseball team serving a regional market.

Add to that the Convention Center and, even more, the hole in the ground next to it enlarging an investment in regional (not city or state) economic activity. The Schaefer administration's failed effort to build a theater for musical productions in Baltimore may have been the last gasp of state metropolitanism.

That era could end as a result of the shift in state power from metropolitan Baltimore to the Washington suburbs. Future General Assemblies may refuse to get the state deeper into the metropolitan Baltimore business, and may initiate withdrawal.

One strong theme of politics in metropolitan Washington is resentment of Baltimore as a bottomless pit for state expenditure that must be capped. There are arguments against this view, but it is a powerful sentiment that will not go away.

A lot of people voted for Parris Glendening in the belief that he will cut off Baltimore. (He never said he would; what he said was that Metropolitan Washington needed a governor from its own region.) In fact, Ellen Sauerbrey would have cut off Baltimore more effectively, but she failed to convince enough Montgomery County voters that someone from Baltimore County would.

If this era of state metropolitanism is ending, voters in the city and counties will have to reassess their longstanding antipathy to metropolitan structures. Subdivision governments may find that, in the words of Ben Franklin on quite another matter, they will have to hang together or all hang separately.

Outside of government, people have no trouble with metropolitanism, as witness the six-subdivision United Way of Central Maryland. Only in the political dimension is it impossible to admit.

Talk about biting bullets. In the future, metropolitanism could be forced out in the open, if the city cannot provide it and the state no longer will.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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