Putting a crimp in Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan's plans for the Baltimore bus system, the General Assembly has put language in the state budget requiring the Maryland Transit Administration to hold two public hearings before making more changes in local bus routes.
The budget language is expected to delay the second phase of the MTA's proposed route restructuring from June to at least October. House and Senate negotiators agreed on the provision during a weekend conference to reconcile differences over the budget.
The provision also will require the MTA to deliver a report to the Assembly's budget committees by Oct. 1 on the impact of the first phase of the administration's route revisions, which it calls the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative. The first round of changes took effect Oct. 23.
Hearings on the next phase would have to be held before Sept. 30. The provision was adopted over the objections of Flanagan, who wanted to move forward with the second phase June 11 without hearings. He has contended that the MTA was getting the input it needed on those changes in a series of meetings with community groups.
Flanagan said yesterday that he could not say what the MTA's response will be because he had yet to see the language legislators adopted Saturday. "It is frustrating to be kept in the dark like this," he said.
The administration has billed its initiative as the first comprehensive restructuring of the region's bus routes in more than three decades. The revisions have included rerouting many heavily used bus lines, adding a new express line and ending service on some lightly traveled routes.
Flanagan, who has taken a hands-on role in driving the process, has contended that hearings held last summer were sufficient for both phases.
"The General Assembly has sent us back to the beginning of the process," he said. "We were ready to make the improvements in June, and now we have been sent back to the starting line."
But Sen. Verna L. Jones, the West Baltimore Democrat who proposed putting the hearing requirement in the budget, said her constituents haven't seen the changes made so far as improvements.
"I have got a lot of comments that there have been problems with it," she said. "People were dissatisfied."
Jones said she had concerns about some of the changes MTA officials have proposed in the second phase, including the possible loss of some Route No. 16 service in Violetville and rerouting of the No. 7.
"My major concern was making sure that they vetted all of the changes and that they were on top of any unforeseen or unintended consequences," she said. "What are they afraid of?"
Donn Worgs, a political science professor at Towson University, said that although holding hearings would be more democratic, the requirement also appears to have a political dimension. With Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. up for re-election, the hearings have the potential to become "great political theater" for his opponents, Worgs said.
"I would be surprised if emotions didn't run high, because a lot of people's lives are impacted by these changes," he said.
Jones said her proposal had nothing to do with politics.
"My issue was to make sure they did an assessment of the impact of the changes that they have made," she said. "You don't just make changes and not scrutinize what has been done."