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June 12, 2005

THE MARYLAND Transit Administration is headed down a bumpy road. Soon, the agency will no longer pay off-duty policy officers in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to patrol light rail stations. That policy is certain to infuriate homeowners in suburban neighborhoods where light rail is thought to breed crime. But any uproar generated by that decision will pale compared with how city residents will respond to sweeping changes planned for bus routes. The state wants to reconfigure virtually every bus line, killing some less-traveled routes. The proposal will be presented in a series of public hearings this month and could be in place by mid-October.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan argues that both decisions are overdue. Crime on the light rail system is down, and the MTA now has civilian fare inspectors who can summon police when necessary. It's certainly true that the bus routings deserved an overhaul. There are too many cases of empty transit buses serving now-forsaken employment centers. Such a realignment offers an opportunity for expansion - to find efficiencies and use the savings to better serve potential riders elsewhere.

But are these decisions about serving transit customers more effectively or are they only about spending less money on transit? Unfortunately, there's evidence to suggest the latter. In the case of light rail security, the MTA will save $2.4 million by not paying for police overtime. And while the cost-effectiveness of keeping officers around every suburban station (at overtime rates, incidentally) is questionable, withdrawing funding entirely is risky. Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is particularly unhappy with the move and recalls what launched the program in the first place - a significant spike in local assaults, robberies and car thefts shortly after the line opened more than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the reconfiguration of bus routes comes only two years after a major fare increase and service reduction. Mr. Flanagan expects the plan to save the MTA $5 million in operating costs. That would be a fine idea if the savings were going to be plowed right back into the system, but they won't - the money has already been cut from the budget. It doesn't help matters that Mr. Flanagan and the MTA are stuck with a legislative mandate that 40 percent of operating costs be recovered at the farebox. That's a strong incentive to cut underused bus lines. The MTA literally can't afford to build up ridership.

Making transit more efficient is one thing, but slowly killing the system is another. Cutbacks that reduce ridership will spawn more cutbacks, and on and on. The highway construction industry may be cheered by this, but it could be a crippling blow to Baltimore's economy. Transit isn't just an alternative form of transportation; for many city residents, it's a veritable lifeline to opportunity. Ridership shouldn't be the sole measure of a bus line's value. What about the workers who can't get to jobs? The impact on employers? On neighborhoods? On a city's quality of life?

This week, the Baltimore County Council approved a $220 million plan to create a new town center at the Owings Mills Metro station. That kind of transit-oriented development is precisely what the region needs. Light rail has this potential to create new opportunities, too. So do buses.

But realizing that potential requires more investment in transit, not less. And that's where Maryland's political leaders have repeatedly failed, too easily satisfied with a half-built, half-baked jumble. The Baltimore region needs a transit system that is safe and convenient. Spending less money on it is unlikely to achieve that end.

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