U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings urged Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan yesterday to hold formal public hearings before proceeding with the second phase of a comprehensive restructuring of Baltimore's bus routes.
In a letter to Flanagan, the Baltimore Democrat said formal hearings - as opposed to the community meetings the Maryland Transit Administration has been conducting - are necessary. He said hearings, unlike the less structured meetings with community groups, would give people an opportunity to study the changes and put their comments on the public record.
The request from one of Baltimore's leading African-American political figures could add to the pressure on Flanagan in the wake of the disclosure of a letter he wrote to state legislators that proposed restoring some canceled Northwest Baltimore bus service in exchange for their scuttling legislation requiring public hearings.
The letter, copies of which circulated in the city over the weekend, offended some community activists who questioned the propriety of such a trade. The legislation, which was not withdrawn, will receive a hearing in the House of Delegates today.
Flanagan has opposed a new round of public hearings before the launch of the initiative's second phase - scheduled for June 11 - saying they would delay the launch for nine months to a year. The MTA held six hearings, which were much more widely advertised than recent community meetings, on the original initiative proposal last summer.
"The combined public hearings and outreach we have done have exceeded anything in the history of the MTA and are far in excess of the legal requirements," he said. "The added benefit of them in terms of getting public input has to be balanced against the delay in making improvements."
But Cummings said the public reaction to the first phase, implemented in October, has not been favorable. "People have been complaining about Phase One, and I certainly have concerns about Phase Two," he said.
Donn Worgs, a professor of political science at Towson University, said public administrators are often less than thrilled at the prospect of public hearings because it makes their jobs harder.
"They would like to make their decisions just on their perception of what's efficient and cost-effective," he said.
Worgs, who closely follows Baltimore politics, said there are also strong reasons for Republicans to resist hearings in a year when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is running for re-election.
"It's like you're tossing a softball to your political opponents," he said. "It can actually galvanize opposition to your administration and your administration's policies."
Conversely, the Democrats who are calling for hearings might have their own political motivation, Worgs said. He said the people who would turn out before the TV cameras would likely be opponents of the bus initiative with stories about how the changes had complicated their lives.
"Most of the energy's going to be on the side of the opposition," Worgs said.
Cummings said his call for hearings had nothing to do with politics. He said it wasn't his decision to move forward with the bus changes in an election year.
"My constituency probably would be pleased to see the system remain pretty much as it is," he said.