City's charitable dirt bike plan stuck in neutral

Sending cycles to Africa possible, but now debated

November 04, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Take hundreds of dirt bikes that are a wheelie-popping menace off Baltimore streets, throw them in the city impound lot and wait. And wait. And wait.

Nearly two years have passed since the City Council came up with an unusual plan to dispose of dirt bikes seized by police by sending them to Africa.

The council hoped the bikes, which are illegal on city streets and often used for drug-running, might be put to legitimate use in African countries, where roads are in poor condition.

But the bikes haven't budged. And city officials are of different minds about when - or where - they might go. More than 450 are at the impound lot, growing rustier and less valuable by the day.

"They were out here during the blizzard. They were out here during Isabel," Bob Suit, towing manager for the Department of Transportation, said as he surveyed a pile of weathered bikes spilling out of a chain-link-fenced enclosure at the Pulaski Highway lot.

Some city officials say that's about to change. They have found a motorcycle enthusiast who is willing to prepare the bikes for shipment and located a church that would add the bikes to its regular shipments of humanitarian aid to Africa.

"It's finally coming to an end," City Council President Sheila Dixon said of the long wait.

But Mayor Martin O'Malley's office says the bikes might not go anywhere but the junkyard.

Some senior administration officials - concerned that details of the plan are too sketchy and that the bikes might fall into the wrong hands in Africa - would rather see them destroyed.

"It hasn't been determined what mechanism will be used to get rid of the bikes," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley. "The mayor just wants to ensure that they never return to Baltimore City streets."

Council members approved their bikes-to-Africa plan in February last year, two years after they outlawed the vehicles on city streets. The ban grew out of an accident in which two young men slammed their bikes into a delivery truck and died. But bikes had been a problem in Baltimore for years. Gangs known as "rough riders" were roaring through streets in packs of 20 or more, running drugs and terrorizing motorists.

The council did not want the city to auction confiscated dirt bikes as it does other seized vehicles for fear they would find their way back to Baltimore streets. Shipping them overseas - at someone else's expense - seemed like a way to get rid of a problem and do a good deed.

"It might be junk to us, but it's somebody else's treasure," Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a supporter of the plan, said at the time the council passed the bill.

Some of the bikes could fetch $1,000 or more in good condition. But as time passes, the "treasure" in the impound lot is looking more and more like junk.

The reason for the long delay is not clear.

"The holdup has been the Law Department," Dixon said.

But City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said his office was not to blame. "It was just a program with a lack of direction, and now it has gotten the attention of all the individuals concerned," he said.

Several agencies have had a role in carrying out the council's plan. The Police Department confiscated the bikes, the Department of Transportation stored them and the Law Department established the city's legal ownership of them.

But it appears that no one was responsible for seeing the plan through to the end by readying the bikes for shipment and seeing that they go overseas.

"It's not like there's an agency handbook on how to ship dirt bikes to foreign countries," said Antonio Hayes, Dixon's director of legislative affairs. "We're entering a new realm."

John C. Spero, a motorcycle enthusiast from Felton, Pa., has offered to prepare the bikes for shipment - making sure they work, draining the gasoline and oil - in exchange for spare parts from those that can't be salvaged.

No formal agreement has been reached, however, and some administration officials privately express concern about such an arrangement. They wonder how the city will know which bikes can be repaired and which should be sold for parts.

Rock City Church of Baltimore, which sends humanitarian aid to Ghana, Nigeria, Madagascar and other African countries, is offering to ship the bikes for free. The church says it would give the bikes to ministers in those countries.

The church could squeeze some bikes into a shipping container with 20,000 pounds of rice, 30 hospital beds, medical supplies and clothing bound for Ghana in about a week.

"Our container is ready to go in less than 10 days," Bishop Bart Pierce, pastor of Rock City Church, said last week. "We'd like to top it off with these bikes."

But the city is sure to miss that boat, with the bikes still piled up in the impound lot, not yet in shipping condition.

"It is becoming a little frustrating," said Stukes, who could not even recall which countries the council had hoped to help with the bike bill. "It's been a little while."

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