AWOL on transportation

Local leaders: Their disinterest angers Washington -- and explains lack of vision.

July 28, 1999

THIS WAS C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger explaining why he, his fellow county executives and the mayor are too busy to participate on a regional committee responsible for federal transportation money: "We have to run our government, too."

This was Mr. Ruppersberger's calendar this week: Monday, speak at Fannie Mae "event"; Tuesday, open; Wednesday, attend party for Vice President Al Gore at Port Discovery; Thursday, open; Friday, open.

Who has time for nuts-and-bolts transportation strategy when there are parties to attend?

Of course, Mr. Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, and his colleagues have a lot on their plates. But his explanation for his absence from the Transportation Steering Committee -- which has led federal officials to threaten to withhold billions in aid for this region -- is ludicrous.

The committee was created years ago because the federal government wanted local governments to decide how to spend transportation money. While area politicians cheer regionalism and Smart Growth in the abstract, they give short shrift to this effort, appointing mid-level bureaucrats to make critical decisions for them. U.S. highway officials say they haven't seen anything like it.

They have even asked other regions to help set the Baltimore group straight. The executives' appointees also hold sessions in private, inexplicable for an issue so obviously public and in violation of the state open meetings act.

It's not far-fetched to suggest a link between the local leaders' apparent apathy for this process and the lack of vision for transportation in the region -- the standstill on mass transit; the road network ill-suited to the growth in suburb-to-suburb commutes; the ever-spreading rush hour.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Mr. Ruppersberger and executives Janet S. Owens in Anne Arundel, James N. Robey in Howard, James M. Harkins in Harford, the Carroll County commissioners and Annapolis city officials must recommit to transportation planning. It is critical to economic development and quality of life.

Too bad if they consider it boring, beneath them or not as stimulating as political galas and ribbon cuttings. Their constituents who grin and bear gridlock and maddening delays every day deserve better.

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