Questions surround nominee Flanagan

Ehrlich's pick for head of transportation praised, criticized by observers

February 23, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Del. Robert L. Flanagan knows a thing or two about alternative means of transportation. He rode the bus to Gonzaga High School in Washington. He took the train around Boston while studying at Harvard. Then, for a time, he rode a nuclear submarine in the Pacific.

But for most of his adult life, Flanagan has driven from his suburban home to his office in a car by himself. The man who would be state transportation secretary knows a thing or two, then, about traffic and congestion and what nags commuters.

"We have to address problems raised by traffic congestion and we have to provide a workable mass transit system in Baltimore," said Flanagan, whose confirmation hearing is tomorrow.

If confirmed, he is expected to play a key role in shaping how people get around in Maryland. He will be a top adviser to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose transportation plans remain vague. With lean years ahead, he and his administration face some hard choices -- build new roads or lay new rail, add lanes to highways or add buses to city streets.

So far, Ehrlich and Flanagan have made only one promise to commuters -- to build the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County. Everything else is on the table.

So is Flanagan a roads guy or is he a rail guy?

"The jury is still out," said Dan Pontious, director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership and a leading proponent of a subway and light rail plan that would create six interwoven transit lines in the city and its suburbs.

Ehrlich and Flanagan, if confirmed, must decide by mid-March whether to seek federal money for the rail plan. Whether they fight for that money will be seen as an indicator of how mass transit will fare under the new leadership in Annapolis.

Pontious and others are alarmed by Flanagan's frequent talk about studying the costs of mass transit -- and of meeting the state requirement that 40 percent of operating costs come from passenger fares. The Maryland Tran- sit Administration now collects 35 percent of operating costs from fares.

"We have to be thoughtful and studied about the development of mass transportation," Flanagan said. "How do we get the most bang for our buck is really what we need to look at."

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former Howard County executive who served with Flanagan in the General Assembly, said she's frustrated by those who want to put more money into roads because transit is a money-loser.

"Of course mass transit loses money," said Bobo, a Democrat, before sounding a warning about Flanagan. "For people in Maryland who are interested in mass transit programs, his priorities to that extent will not be in line with theirs or with mine."

Flanagan, 57, was a frequent critic of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, as well as a thorn in the side of the Democratic leadership in the legislature. It was Flanagan, for instance, who asked the state prosecutor to investigate the conduct of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller during last year's state redistricting battles.

Now it is Miller's Senate that will hold tomorrow's confirmation hearing for Flanagan. When Flanagan's name was floated for the job last month, Miller told reporters that the governor "can do better" and called Flanagan "divisive, mean-spirited and also not qualified."

In an interview last week, Miller said he does not hold any grudges. And after speaking with Flanagan and those he's worked with in the Assembly, Miller said he plans to vote for his confirmation.

"A number of people said that since he lost the mantle of minority whip [in 2001], he turned into a halfway-normal sort of person," Miller said. "Although you can certainly find someone who's more qualified, who's to say the governor is going to appoint such a person?"

Other lawmakers said that with Miller on board, nothing more should stand in Flanagan's way. Still, Flanagan is concerned enough about whether he'll be confirmed that he has not yet resigned his position in the House of Delegates, where he has represented Ellicott City since 1987.

He has earned a reputation as sharp-tongued and sharp-witted, as a hard worker who would skip drinks with colleagues to pore over budget documents, as a fiscal conservative but a social moderate. He voted for Glendening's gay-rights bill in 2001 and co-sponsored a law against race-based traffic stops.

"I think he represents the best of what the Republican Party can be," said his brother, Ed Flanagan, a liberal Democrat who served four terms as Vermont's state auditor. Robert Flanagan helped him in his campaigns, doing everything from plotting strategy to licking stamps.

Some liberal Democrats in Maryland share his brother's favorable view. Del. Peter Franchot, who has sparred with Flanagan on the House Appropriations Committee, said the governor made a good choice.

"You want to surround yourself with quality people. You want to avoid mediocrity, and that's what the governor's done in selecting Bob Flanagan," Franchot said. "He's an extraordinarily smart, honest, competent person."

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