Open-mind policy is Flanagan's best trait


November 13, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Ed Cohen's got a long, scraggly beard and a frayed suit jacket that appears to be about 40 years old. He's the type of guy a security guard might shoo away if he got too close to a high-ranking state official.

One of my most vivid memories of covering Robert L. Flanagan as state transportation secretary is watching him engage in a prolonged and mutually respectful policy discussion with Cohen in the halls of Annapolis.

Cohen, a mass transit advocate, is frequently on the opposite side from Flanagan on vital issues. But the president of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore said he'll miss the soon-to-be-ex transportation secretary.

"Flanagan would listen to anybody. Flanagan's door was wide open," Cohen said.

Whatever other judgments may be rendered on Flanagan's four-year tenure under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., it is hard to deny that he was accessible, passionate and hardworking. The former Howard County delegate might have been stubborn and fiercely partisan, but he kept an open mind and would correct mistakes - even if he didn't quite admit them. In an otherwise thin-skinned administration, he kept his tough hide and his sense of humor.

While Flanagan came into office with a reputation as a pour-the-asphalt guy from the Republican suburbs, he took an intense interest in the problems of the Maryland Transit Administration.

"He learned a lot about transit and spent more time on it than anything else, trying to make it work right," Cohen said.

Cohen, a city resident and registered Democrat, gives Flanagan credit for making substantial improvements in some aspects of MTA service.

"The bus fleet has been greatly upgraded in quality. The buses they've bought were the best buses we've ever gotten," said Cohen, who is retired. He also gives Flanagan credit for introducing all-day limited east-west bus service on the U.S. 40 line.

Those are among several areas Flanagan and the Ehrlich administration can legitimately claim to have changed mass transit in Maryland for the better. Another big one was the improvement in the Mobility service for the disabled, where after a rough start the MTA straightened out problems and settled a lawsuit brought by an advocacy group. It was a big victory on behalf of a vulnerable population.

Flanagan's record on transit issues was far from trouble-free. He took on a big challenge - one even his critics acknowledged was long overdue - when he launched a comprehensive restructuring of Baltimore area bus routes.

The transportation chief has consistently maintained that the initiative improved bus service. Cohen - along with many other MTA riders - disagrees.

"They never quite got it right," Cohen said.

The initiative was snake-bit from the start. When the MTA first brought a restructuring plan to a public hearing, it included such a draconian list of cuts and reroutings that the community was incensed. The MTA backed off that plan, but the impression that the prime goal of the initiative was to cut costs could not be erased.

To his credit, Flanagan did not distance himself from the consequences of his actions. When a Sun reporter invited him to join in a tour of city bus routes after the first round of changes, Flanagan accepted.

It was a gutsy move because there was no way to script what people would say. Dissatisfied MTA riders gave him an earful but openly admired his willingness to listen.

Cohen is looking forward to some of the changes Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley promised in his campaign - the mayor's openness to studying an east-west Red Line subway through Baltimore. Flanagan, whom Cohen described as "predisposed to bus solutions," has firmly ruled out heavy rail as too costly to receive federal funding.

Still, Cohen is hoping O'Malley chooses a transportation secretary who is as involved as Flanagan.

"He was a very, very hands-on secretary in terms of transit," said Cohen. "The reason he got better was because his door was open. ... He was willing to discuss any issue with anybody. That really was a quality that served him well and the governor well."

Now Cohen has some advice for O'Malley. As poorly as the first phase of the bus route restructuring went, Cohen said the changes planned for the second phase early next year are good. He's hoping the new administration will resist any inclination to delay the previous regime's handiwork.

"The genuine improvements of this coming phase should not be held hostage to the failures of the initial phase," Cohen said.

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