Tokens for transit

March 09, 2004

BALTIMORE NEEDS better public transit. What the city has now is a bunch of half-built half-measures. It's become a chronic problem and is one of the prime reasons that Baltimore's jobless can't get work - and the rest of us are increasingly stuck in traffic.

That's why it's vital that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fully support the Red Line, the proposed east-west transit connection from Woodlawn to downtown Baltimore and potentially further east to Patterson Park. Administration officials claim to warmly embrace the project and have offered to spend $17 million on its planning and design. But when it comes to forking over the big bucks to build it? Well, that's when the support turns a bit cool. Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan says construction can't start until 2011.

Fortunately, there are legislators who know that spending money on public transit is an investment in new jobs, in urban renewal, in clean air and Smart Growth. Baltimore's Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, has become the city's leading advocate in Annapolis for the Red Line. Without her support, Governor Ehrlich's entire transportation program could be in trouble.

Delegate McIntosh is right to take a stand. A lot of lawmakers already are unhappy with Mr. Ehrlich's bill to boost transportation spending by $266 million annually because it relies on higher fees (taking the cost of biennial car registration into the triple digits, for instance) instead of a gas tax increase. But if Republicans are willing to support these kinds of fee increases, Democrats are likely to go along - Maryland's transportation system hasn't seen significant new revenue in more than a decade.

That's important to note because Mr. Ehrlich inherited a neglected system. Now it's up to a new administration to start things moving again by advancing the state's proposed transit lines, not just Baltimore's Red Line (and Green Line from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University) but the two recommended lines in suburban Washington, too.

No transit system can be built overnight, of course, particularly if a light rail or subway is determined to be the best mode. But it's one of the city's most pressing needs, and if the Washington area can get a $1.7 billion Intercounty Connector on a fast track, doesn't the Baltimore region deserve an equal boost?

Business groups such as the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Greater Washington Board of Trade support new investment in public transit. If Mr. Ehrlich is serious about getting Maryland moving again, he will too. Maryland deserves a transportation plan where the needs of people, not necessarily cars, are paramount.

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