Proposed transit cutbacks too harsh, Schrader says

Political Notebook

June 26, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

FUNDING FOR mass transit and the argument over cutting commuter bus lines between Howard County and Baltimore is usually an easy way to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans - with one exception.

Democrats typically favor bus and rail as a an environmentally friendly hedge against highway congestion, an oil saver and a vital necessity for people who cannot or do not drive.

Republicans, including state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, a former Howard delegate, say mass transit is losing money and must be more efficient to meet budget constraints imposed by the General Assembly. They see more and wider highways as the best way to serve the vast majority of commuters who drive and pay the taxes and fees that support the state's transportation system.

Those ideological fault lines were clear enough this week as debate heated up over Flanagan's plans to eliminate the No. 150 line from Baltimore to Ellicott City, the No. 311 commuter line that connects Columbia's Owen Brown village to Baltimore, and reduce service on the No. 320 line that serves U.S. 1.

State Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a moderate Republican from the southeastern county's District 13, was the exception - arguing that efficiency is fine unless it hurts too many people.

She appeared at the second of two public hearings on the proposed service cuts and strongly opposed virtually every aspect of the process as too harsh on riders. Instead of speaking first - a privilege extended to busy elected officials - she waited to be the last speaker.

First, notification of riders about the proposals "was a little loose," she said. If the proposed changes are imposed, "we can't allow people to be blindsided on a day they're trying to get to work," she told state hearing examiners at the Jessup Holiday Inn on Tuesday.

Major business expansions along U.S. 1 will require more transit for employees, not less, she argued, and she questioned plans to cut off the state's office complex on W. Preston street from Columbia commuter buses. She also opposed plans to drop mid-day commuter service from downtown, arguing that that might keep parents anxious about their ability to get home in an emergency from using buses.

"We have to make our county more friendly for using mass transit," she said, adding that the last trip back to Columbia isn't late enough, cutting off people who often must work after 5:30 p.m.

"Some of these cuts are very hurtful to people. We can't afford to have anymore," she said.

At the first hearing Monday night at Kahler Hall in Columbia, three county Democrats joined about 50 other protesters to oppose the changes.

Del. Frank S. Turner, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said the state has plenty of cash from rising revenue and a rainy day fund and does not need the $5 million the overall bus system cuts would save, much less the nearly $500,000 cutting Howard commuter service would achieve.

"If we can spend $2.4 billion on a 19-mile road, we can also provide some balance," Turner told the crowd, referring to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to build the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County. If that project goes forward and runs over budget, as he suspects it will, Turner said after the hearing, other transportation projects will be squeezed out of the money.

"If we keep cutting services, we're not encouraging anybody to use mass transit," he said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former Howard County executive, was equally critical.

"Howard County is right in the center of the state. When the state decides they want to build highways, they will work and work and work on an alignment. We need to start using the same level of determination, ingenuity and creativity" for mass transit. Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, who like Turner and Schrader represents District 13, agreed.

But some Democrats - including Turner and Bobo - have opposed Ehrlich's efforts to raise money for transportation projects, including mass transit, by raising registration and other auto-related fees.

Republicans said Democrats cannot have it both ways, while Democrats said they voted against the higher registration fees knowing Ehrlich's priority is highways, not mass transit.

Bobo said she voted against the Intercounty Connector highway project. "All you needed was a minuscule percent of funding for the ICC," she said, to wipe out the transit deficit.

But western county Republican Del. Warren E. Miller does not agree.

"The reality here is when people pay their gas tax, they assume the money's going for road maintenance and road construction," he said. "Whenever I see a bus, I've never seen one of those things full. We've got a tremendous investment in empty buses."

Instead of spending money on mass transit, Miller argues, it should go to fixing traffic problem spots for motorists - such as widening Interstate 70 and Marriottsville Road.

The transit system, he said, "has been a huge taxpayer-funded boondoggle for years. I don't see mass transit as being the golden knight to free our roads of too much traffic."

And as for the General Assembly-required 40 percent fare box recovery requirement, Turner argued that Ehrlich has no qualms about ignoring other legislative mandates when it suits his purposes - such as funding the state's prevailing wage office, or keeping pregnant low-income legal immigrants on the health care rolls.

"They pick and choose what mandates they want to cover," Turner said.

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