Restructuring the transit plan

Initiative: Budget-trimming can't become the roadblock to meeting long-term bus and rail needs.

March 08, 2001

MARYLAND'S transportation needs are enormous: $27 billion over 20 years to modernize highways and mass transit, according to a 16-month-old commission report that's still considered the bible on the subject.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening this year responded, in part, with a six-year, $758 million mass transit proposal. This would be a solid plan if the governor, who previously had overlooked Baltimore's mass transit needs, hadn't overwhelmed the General Assembly this session with so many spending initiatives that it threw the budget out of whack.

The General Assembly will have to trim at least $200 million to get Mr. Glendening's $21 billion budget under its spending affordability cap. That's a tough task. Few programs will be spared.

Better public transportation is a major unmet necessity -- especially Baltimore-area mass transit -- but not the only one. Education, drug treatment, mental health care, criminal justice are among other services crying for help.

The administration and legislators must restructure this important transit initiative the way a professional sports team juggles a superstar's contract to fit within its salary cap.

For instance, the governor wants to shift certain general-fund tax receipts to the state's transportation program. This may have to be phased in, starting next year, instead of done all at once.

But the transit initiative must survive. Along with financing crucial Baltimore rail-extension studies, it's the boldest step this governor has taken to improve public transportation statewide.

It would increase bus purchases, add neighborhood and downtown shuttles, expand service on overcrowded routes, add Sunday Metro subway service, create a Baltimore-Washington pre-paid transit "smart card" and reduce statewide transit fares to $1.10 -- or $2.50 for an all-day pass.

This long-term transit plan should go forward. But getting the state budget under the spending cap has to remain the General Assembly's first order of business.

Both objectives can and should be achieved.

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