Follow through

March 14, 2003

YESTERDAY'S ANNOUNCEMENT by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - that he's putting a new rail or rapid-bus line for the Baltimore region on the state's priority list for federal backing in the next six-year funding cycle - is very welcome news.

Only last week, state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan indicated skepticism about even seeking funds to expand the region's limited transit lines. An unusually unified and strong uproar from a wide variety of regional political leaders quickly produced a turnaround.

That was a real political coup - an important step in the long-term struggle to strengthen the entire Baltimore region. But now come even more challenging questions.

Mr. Flanagan says the administration's commitment to the planned Red Line from the Social Security complex in Woodlawn through downtown to Fells Point is genuine. But it's also measured.

Let's see if the governor seriously prods his former congressional colleagues for planning and construction funds for the proposed transit line, now joining hundreds of new transit projects nationwide competing for limited federal funds.

When the federal funding decisions are made between now and this fall, will the Washington area's costly priorities - including a new Purple Line for its Metro system and Mr. Ehrlich's No. 1 priority, $800 million to start building the Intercounty Connector - once again trump Baltimore's long-neglected transit needs?

And even if federal funds for the Red Line are approved, will the long-awaited project then bog down in squabbling over its planning - such that groundbreaking doesn't take place within the next six years and remains ever distant?

Plenty of opportunities for that remain. Mr. Flanagan says that before the state commits to building the Red Line and other such projects, the legislature will have to commit to figuring out how to replenish with additional revenue the woefully underfunded state Transportation Trust Fund. He also appears quite taken - much to the frustration of light-rail backers - with making the Red Line a high-speed bus line, not a light-rail line.

And experience with building Baltimore's two rail lines indicates that local officials must summon the courage to stand up to the inevitable opposition generated by route planning - or poor choices will be made, resulting in a poor product.

So even as the broad coalition pushing hard for the much larger Baltimore Region Rail System Plan congratulates itself on this milestone, bringing even just the first part of the plan to life requires a long-term commitment - not just from the State House, but from area leaders at all levels. It's heartening that so many politicians stood up together when the Red Line didn't seem to be among Mr. Ehrlich's priorities, but now they need to follow through over what remains a very long and difficult haul.

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