In a governor's race dominated by the issues of education, crime and the economy, transportation so far has taken a back seat. But in a state that slogs through some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, moving people and goods remains one of the most important functions of state government.
"A lot of key decisions are scheduled to be made in the next four years, and the outcome of those decisions could influence jobs and neighborhood investments and growth patterns for generations to come," said Dan Pontious, policy director for Baltimore's Citizens Planning and Housing Association.
The next administration will decide, for example, whether the state builds rail transit or rapid bus lanes in three important transportation corridors -- an east-west line in Baltimore and two lines in the Washington suburbs. The Ehrlich administration is clearly intrigued by Bus Rapid Transit -- using high-tech buses in dedicated lanes -- while O'Malley is an advocate for rail.
The next governor could also determine whether the state continues in the direction of financing major road projects with tolls, or turns to increases in taxes or fees. Ehrlich's transportation secretary, Robert L. Flanagan, prefers tolls to build and expand roads as well as to control congestion. O'Malley is scornful of toll projects, calling them "a move backward in our history."
The Ehrlich administration wants to keep spending more than $1 million a year over the next six years to make plans for a new crossing of the Chesapeake Bay -- a "third bridge" idea that has run into fierce resistance on the Eastern Shore. O'Malley opposes a new bay crossing and wants to explore a system of fast ferries.
Transportation played more of a central role in Ehrlich's 2002 campaign, in which he criticized Gov. Parris N. Glendening for canceling the proposed Inter-county Connector -- a highway connecting Interstates 95 and 270 in the Washington suburbs -- and underfunding road projects around the state.
To a large extent, Ehrlich has delivered on his promises, using his influence with the Bush administration to put the ICC on a fast track. The toll road received final federal approval earlier this year.
In 2004, the governor took on the politically delicate challenge of persuading the General Assembly to raise transportation revenues. Flanagan cobbled together a fragile coalition to approve a near-doubling of vehicle registration fees, winning a crucial victory for Ehrlich and bringing in $238 million a year.
But before that vote, Ehrlich dipped into the state Transportation Trust Fund for $300 million over two budget years to cover a shortfall inherited from Glendening without resorting to taxes. In addition, the governor cut about $200 million in transportation aid to local governments -- including O'Malley's Baltimore.
It's a decision O'Malley continues to criticize.
"The governor made things worse by diverting transportation trust funds into the general fund," O'Malley said in a recent interview over breakfast in New Carrollton.
O'Malley contends that Ehrlich is too oriented to road-building and hostile to mass transit -- a charge Flanagan denies, saying the administration has taken a balanced approach to transportation. Ehrlich declined to be interviewed for this article. His campaign referred questions to the administration's transportation chief.
Flanagan pointed to the administration's outlay of design money for four major transit projects: an extension of the Baltimore Metro subway to Morgan State University; an east-west Red Line from Woodlawn to Canton; a route connecting New Carrollton to Bethesda and another in the I-270 corridor.
While O'Malley and Ehrlich both support construction of the Red Line, they have different visions of what that might look like.
Flanagan has ruled out heavy rail such as the existing Metro system. As with the two Washington-area lines, he has narrowed the study to light rail and Bus Rapid Transit.
Flanagan said he keeps talking up rapid bus to encourage people to keep an open mind about that solution. He denied that his mind is made up, saying public preferences will play a significant role in the choice of modes.
But O'Malley put the differences between him and Flanagan in stark terms.
"He's a bus man. I'm a rail man," he said. "I have a bias toward rail. I think it's more effective."
O'Malley not only prefers light rail to rapid bus, he wants to put the heavy-rail option for the Red Line back on the table.
"His statement might be made out of total ignorance or it's a fraudulent misrepresentation to the public of what is realistic," Flanagan said. He said the General Assembly decided as far back as 1987 that a subway was too expensive and that the federal government will not finance new subway lines.
O'Malley criticized the Ehrlich administration's move toward the use of tolls to fund so-called "mega-projects" such as the expansion of the Washington and Baltimore beltways.