End of the lines

June 15, 2005

EHRLICH ADMINISTRATION officials knew they were going to get an earful when they walked into War Memorial Plaza on Monday for the first in a series of public hearings on reconfiguring Baltimore's bus routes. The angry crowd did not disappoint. Deciding where and when buses travel isn't a simple accounting: People's lives can depend on such things. Saving money by canceling underused bus lines is one thing, but when rerouting a bus means people can't get to jobs, the savings are of questionable value.

Witness after witness testified to this human cost of the Maryland Transit Administration's plan. The MTA and senior Ehrlich administration officials claim they're listening. None of the MTA's plans is "carved in stone," Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday after reviewing the results. "We're out to improve bus service. When final decisions are made, that's our paramount concern."

Mr. Flanagan has a difficult task ahead of him. Clearly, there are times when bus schedules need to be updated to meet the community's changing needs. But everyone affected by this proposal needs to be heard. A 60-day delay in the planning and public hearing phase - a move endorsed by Mayor Martin O'Malley and local county executives - has merit. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. may not like having the debate extended into an election year, but even if the plans are finalized by October, the matter won't be settled. Members of the General Assembly are likely to make changes when the legislature reconvenes in early January.

In the MTA's defense, this reconfiguration was long overdue. Running near-empty buses isn't the best use of existing resources. But Mr. Flanagan has made the chore vastly more difficult by insisting that it produce a $5 million savings. No wonder tempers are flaring. It appears Mr. Ehrlich wants to balance his transportation budget on the exact change of the city's working poor.

Buses deserve the same respect this administration gives road-building. The good news is that Mr. Flanagan said yesterday that he's flexible on the $5 million savings goal. That shows the power of public protests. The next hearings are from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at the Sheraton Hotel in Towson and the Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie, and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow at Coppin State University and the Community College of Baltimore County, Dundalk. The more people are heard, the more "flexible" the administration may be.

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