Flanagan sees political bias in bus report

O'Malley, Smith accused of being behind summary critical of route restructuring

July 23, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan accused two leading Democrats of playing politics with Baltimore bus service yesterday and suggested they were behind a draft report that says the bus route restructuring plan the Ehrlich administration scrapped this week would have cut the number of riders and hurt service.

Flanagan leveled the accusation against Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. after being informed of the contents of the executive summary of a report by the staff of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council analyzing the Maryland Transportation Administration's Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative.

The council is a regional association of governments, with a board made up of the mayor and the top executives of the metropolitan counties.

The bus initiative has been billed as the first comprehensive restructuring of Baltimore bus routes in three decades, but Flanagan declared Thursday the original version of the plan "inoperative" after it received a highly negative reaction in public hearings.

Flanagan said it would be "naive" to view the council's report as the work of its professional staff. He said O'Malley, a potential challenger to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and Smith, the current chairman of the council, were "the folks that are in charge."

"It was upsetting to me that O'Malley and Smith want to play politics with something that is as important as bus service in the Baltimore metropolitan area," Flanagan said. He said the council's criticisms were the first he had received that were "off base and politically inspired."

At the time of Flanagan's announcement, the staff of the metropolitan council was putting the final touches on its analysis of the MTA's plan announced in May. Flanagan said he had been unaware of its contents and that it did not affect his decision to scale back the initiative and to implement only its noncontroversial provisions in October.

The summary, obtained by The Sun yesterday, found that the original MTA plan would have cut daily bus usage by almost 25,000 riders - an 8.5 percent decrease. The report also found that neighborhoods where accessibility would decrease outnumber those where it would increase by more than 2-to-1.

Barbara Herron, spokeswoman for the council, said O'Malley and Smith did nothing to dictate the conclusions of a report that was solely the product of the technical staff. She noted that the group's board includes Republicans and Democrats. "We are engaged in technical analysis and are trying to do something objective," Herron said. She added that the MTA asked the council to conduct the analysis.

A spokesman for O'Malley declined to comment.

Don Mohler, communications director for Smith, said the county executive had no input into the content of the report and questioned whether Flanagan was speaking for Ehrlich.

"We're not always sure that the secretary and the governor are on the same page," he said. "What we do know is that the county executive appreciates the fact that the governor has agreed to take another look at the suggested revisions to the bus routes."

Among the draft report's findings:

A sample of 10 major employment centers showed that workers at nine of them would have reduced access because of service reductions.

A random sample of 13 door-to-door trips found 10 for which travel time increased and only three for which it improved.

Service reductions to a large number of suburban business parks would leave a substantial number of workers with no way to reach their jobs.

Service at peak travel periods would decline on 18 bus routes and improve on eight.

The report concluded that the MTA was overly concerned with cutting the bus system budget by $5 million.

Flanagan reacted to that criticism with scorn, saying the mass transit system is already receiving $20 million to $25 million more in subsidies than is permitted under Maryland law.

"If anyone is suggesting that we should not reduce the cost of service, then the only conclusion is that they are supporting a greater increase in fares," he said.

The report did draw some conclusions favorable to the plan. It found that quality of service would have improved at off-peak periods and weekends. And it rejected suggestions that the bus plan was biased against the poor and minorities.

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