The education of a former bomb-thrower

August 14, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

FOR YEARS IN Annapolis, he was a hot-rhetoric Republican, the pre-eminent verbal slasher who kept an overmatched GOP in the game. Democrats ruled. Republicans carped.

Robert L. Flanagan, then a member of the House of Delegates, did the slashing with style.

The echo of those responsibility-free days remains in the voice of Mr. Flanagan, Maryland's secretary of transportation.

But there's a sober urgency in his demeanor now, recognition of higher stakes and a sense of determination, as if he suddenly feels the hot breath of critics who are targeting him. The political attack master has become the prey. Some might say, touchM-i.

If there's just a bit of a shocked look about him, it's the look of a man called upon to put up or shut up - and finding himself in the hands of people who don't understand the difficulties he faces.

To make his mark, he's chosen difficult terrain. The Maryland Transit Administration under Mr. Flanagan proposes to redraw Baltimore-area bus lines. It hasn't been done for decades, if ever.

The MTA has taken on a constituency of tens of thousands of bus riders. It's an inherently political undertaking, fraught with potential for damage to Mr. Flanagan's boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. If the MTA fails, thousands of voters will be inconvenienced and furious. Some Ehrlich insiders were leery of the enterprise, but Mr. Flanagan reportedly persisted.

If he succeeds, he could win points for the man who appointed him. It might make the Ehrlich administration look as if it can - and even wants to - make the buses run on time.

And he might provide some remarkable proof that government can accept public criticism without ramming a new policy down the commuters' throats or deciding to stay with the same inefficient grid.

He says the process so far might have seemed "chaotic." To him, it might seem so. But given the course of protest in such matters, this one seems almost like a model of cooperation.

Mr. Flanagan says he understands the anger.

"It's human nature to focus on the thought that you're losing something," he says. He and his aides have tried, in a series of community forums, to show that much more will be gained than lost. Still, he suggests, some riders will not appreciate the improvements until they are in place.

Until now, he says, administrators have tried to stay within their budget by cutting back service and raising fares. Each of those defensive efforts has made the system weaker financially because people find other ways of commuting.

Without change, he says, Maryland's system is in a death spiral. It's about $20 million beyond revenue guidelines set by the General Assembly. In the past, reasonable fixes have been abandoned amid the outcries of those who will be, they think, mortally wounded by even the smallest adjustment.

Along with the route changes, the secretary and others say, fundamental public policy is being changed. Previous - Democratic - administrations, they say, consciously tried to get people out of their cars and into mass transit. That approach, Mr. Flanagan and his team believe, ignored the facts: Americans love to drive, and there's no reasonable alternative to offer them. A better bus system - and not just the pressure of gridlock or the high cost of parking - is one answer, he says.

Mr. Flanagan says the problems of commuters in the Baltimore region can't wait for mass transit.

"A lot of Governor Ehrlich's critics are happy to be talking about pie in the sky: Let's fix transit by spending hundreds of millions and billions of dollars in the next 10 years or 20 years or 30 years out into the future. But there has not been nearly enough attention to fixing the transit system in the here and now," he says.

He's learning that talk is cheap when you're the one with the job to do. You can say this about Mr. Flanagan: He's not a jaded veteran who's had his initiative and daring singed off by the hot winds of community action, political caution and partisan gunslingers. If there's irony in that, he seems to say, so be it.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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