Here's to regionalism

March 10, 2003

PERHAPS THE best thing about the Ehrlich administration's out-of-the blue rejection last week of the regional rail plan for Baltimore is that it brought to the fore a show of regionalism unprecedented in recent times.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan may be excused for not anticipating the firestorm that their decision set off among virtually all of the region's political leaders. Given the deep social divisions between Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs, regionalism usually only has gotten well-meaning lip service.

But not this time. The united front of outrage was such that the Ehrlich administration almost immediately started backpedaling. By the weekend, it was signaling it will put the first extension of Baltimore's limited rail lines on the state's priority list for the next six-year cycle of federal construction funds.

If the governor follows through by this Friday's federal deadline, that would be a real victory for anyone concerned about the health of the city, region and entire state.

The 20- to 40-year rail plan -- to create a six-line, 109-mile transit system -- would more tightly tie Baltimore and its suburbs, reduce traffic and pollution, and provide a wealth of new development opportunities that could help bring residents, jobs and economic vitality back into the state's troubled core. Just look at rail's success in Washington.

And now imagine the possibilities for suburban commuters, city dwellers and developers from just the first of the planned new lines, the Red Line, which ultimately could run from Interstate 70 through the Social Security complex in Woodlawn and downtown to Fells Point, Canton and Dundalk.

According to area congressmen who met with Mr. Flanagan last week, money to plan, design and break ground for the first 10 miles of this line -- estimated at $1.4 billion -- will be among Maryland's priorities in competing for this round of federal transportation funds.

At least half the project's cost might be federally funded.

And Mr. Flanagan's spokesman was left virtually parroting one of the key arguments of supporters of moving forward now to seek funds to build part of the rail plan: It doesn't make sense to close the door for six years on that option.

It particularly doesn't make sense because the Baltimore region not only needs but also -- judging from the outcry from area leaders last week -- wants a much more extensive modern mass transit system.

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