Bad bargain

May 22, 2002

IT SEEMED an odd and unwise gamble to begin with, the idea that Sen. Barbara Mikulski's "no" vote on higher fuel-efficiency standards last winter might be enough to charm General Motors into saving the Broening Highway plant.

Now, Maryland's junior senator looks like she fell hard for a sucker's bet.

GM is closing Broening Highway for a week, the third time this year the plant has been closed. Why? Because it produces vans whose demand peaked in 1988, with sales this year down more than 20 percent.

So let's look at what the tea leaves say about the plant's future: Production is only scheduled to continue through the third quarter of 2003, and GM has all but said another area plant is intended to offset the eventual closing of Broening.

There are some important lessons here - for Ms. Mikulski and for Baltimore.

The senator should revisit her priorities, for starters. Her stellar pro-environmental record forms an important part of her legacy. Politically, she would have been wiser to procure a more certain quid pro quo before trading on that legacy.

More important, perhaps, there should have been little doubt in Ms. Mikulski's mind which of these interests was more crucial for Maryland. Relieving this area's stifling air pollution (caused in no small part by the gas-guzzling monsters the automakers produce en masse) should have outranked one plant's future in any context.

Baltimore also needs to face reality with regard to Broening. It's going to close at some point; the issue is how to minimize losses from the $1 billion it pumps into the local economy each year. Ms. Mikulski and other leaders should be leaning on GM to promise new employment opportunities or retraining for Broening's workers. Or how about planning for future use of the site, so it doesn't become another eyesore dotting the landscape?

The city and the senator need to stop dreaming about a future that doesn't exist for Broening, and begin planning for an eventuality that's coming.

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