Ehrlich urged to reconsider city rail plan

Elected officials warn if project doesn't move forward now, it may never

`Needed this ... line yesterday'

Congressmen to confer in Washington today with Md. transportation chief

March 06, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl and Stephanie Desmon | Stephen Kiehl and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

A chorus of criticism over the Ehrlich administration's tentative decision not to seek construction money for the Baltimore rail plan grew by the hour yesterday, as the region's top elected officials insisted the governor reconsider.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, three county executives and about 20 lawmakers stood in the shadow of the State House yesterday and warned that if the plan does not move forward now, it may never happen.

Maryland's congressional delegation hastily called a meeting with state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan for noon today in Washington, and several members said they wanted a chance to fight for the rail plan.

"We needed this [rail] line yesterday," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. "I really fear that if we don't keep the pressure on and don't get it authorized for construction, you're looking at another 10, 20, 30 years before we get the transportation we need."

Flanagan maintained yesterday that no final decisions have been made, but he repeated his earlier statements that the plan is not far enough along to compete for federal transit construction money.

The state's six-year transportation plan is due to Congress on March 14. Flanagan said the state does intend to request planning and engineering money to get the Baltimore rail plan started.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said the state can afford to build only one highway project - the Intercounty Connector - and one transit project this go-around. Everything else must wait until 2009.

Flanagan said two Washington-area proposals are almost ready to build - the Purple Line extension of the Metro system and a transit line along Interstate 270. They have been planned, studied and engineered, he said. Baltimore's rail plan has not.

"The day we walked into office, the Washington projects were five to six years ahead of the Baltimore projects," Flanagan said.

But elected officials said the rail plan can move forward rapidly if it gets the money it needs and could be ready to break ground in four or five years. Three congressmen said yesterday that they don't want to wait longer than that and they're itching to go to battle.

"All the stars are lined up right now - you've got a lot of momentum going for this project," Cardin said. "If you don't get construction authorization now, the project won't be considered serious. You're really delaying it five or six years from getting off the ground."

The rail plan calls for the creation of six transit lines woven through Baltimore and its suburbs. The total plan would take at least 20 years to build and cost more than $12 billion.

Two lines were identified as immediate priorities - the $1.4 billion Red Line from Woodlawn to Fells Point and an $800 million extension of the Metro subway from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University. The state and federal governments would be expected to split the costs.

"Let us aggressively pursue money for these projects that are vital to our region and our state," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "If we don't deal with these issues, then the [traffic] problems the Washington suburbs have will be our problems."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings agreed. "The painful thing is that so many people have put their blood, sweat and tears into this plan and they want to see it happen not 20 or 30 years from now, but in the foreseeable future," he said.

The politicians mobilized quickly yesterday after learning of the state's plan to seek construction money only for Washington-area projects.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Howard County Executive James Robey joined O'Malley in pleading with Ehrlich and Flanagan to find some money for Baltimore.

"We are strongly, strongly urging the administration ... to reconsider the decision they appear headed toward," O'Malley said. "Do not neglect Baltimore's transportation needs."

The mayor, county executives and several congressmen were stung by the news: They did not know about it until reading about it in The Sun yesterday. "We hadn't been consulted," O'Malley said. "And we were surprised, to put it mildly."

Flanagan said yesterday that Baltimore is so far behind the Washington-area projects that he couldn't even fill out the line on the federal application form that asks how much each project would cost because he doesn't know.

And he said that even if the congressmen explain to him today how he can apply for money for the fledgling Baltimore project as well as for a Washington-area project, the next problem would be paying for it. Ehrlich wants to take $300 million out of the Transportation Trust Fund over the next 18 months to balance the state's budget.

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