An old city-rural argument is revived

Political Notebook

November 25, 2007|By Larry Carson

The argument between Democratic advocates of Maryland's transit systems and rural Republican legislators who say their constituents do not use them and should not have to pay for them with their gasoline taxes is an old one, but Gov. Martin O'Malley's unsuccessful proposal to raise more money for transportation by keying the gas tax to inflation has helped revive it.

"I'm driving around Lisbon, and there are green Howard Transit buses that are empty," Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said about the county's 26-bus system. "In Columbia, I rarely ever see one that is half-full."

Western Howard County Republicans like Miller and state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman recently criticized the current finance system for mass transit. They and Del. Gail H. Bates, also a Republican, want gas taxes to pay for highways and let transit be financed separately - perhaps by higher taxes for metropolitan-area residents. Bates said that among the big-city operations, the Washington Metro system "is great. The Baltimore system is the problem."

Meanwhile, western county residents must wait years for the doubling of lanes on Route 32 west of Route 108 and widening on clogged Interstate 70 near Marriottsville.

But County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat and a transit booster, said he and nine top staff members rode five of the scheduled bus routes in Columbia and Ellicott City for three hours from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 2 to test the service, and all reported the buses were about 75 percent full, said Kevin Enright, his spokesman and one of the riders.

"Sometimes I hear from people of another political persuasion that no one is on the buses," Ulman told 250 people at a meeting sponsored by People Acting Together in Howard, or PATH, last Sunday. "It's a good system that doesn't run frequently enough."

Ray Ambrose, the Howard Transit administrator, said the county-subsidized scheduled bus service has not run to Lisbon for eight or nine years. What Miller is seeing, he said, are smaller para-transit buses used for nonscheduled individual appointments for disabled people.

Howard Transit officials say ridership has grown 64 percent since 2002 to more than 750,000 riders a year, and routes have been changed repeatedly to achieve efficiency and allow more frequent stops.

Kittleman suggested at a recent Chamber of Commerce breakfast that Baltimore residents should pay an added penny per dollar in sales tax to help finance transit operations.

"A lot of our funding goes to mass transit instead of roads," he said. It's not a partisan political issue, but a geographic one with rural interests clashing with urban ones, Kittleman said.

Meanwhile, advocates like Ulman and Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat, say more mass transit is needed to lessen air pollution, ease traffic congestion and serve workers, students and senior citizens who do not have private vehicles.

Bobo turned the Republicans' query around.

"Why should people who use mass transit or want to use mass transit pay for so many highways? I think our budget is tilted toward highways," she said, noting the $2.4 billion price tag on the Intercounty Connector planned for Montgomery County. Should rural residents pay more for trash service and school buses because of longer travel distances?

Bobo wanted a possible Columbia extension of the Metro Green line included in a state study on bringing the service to Laurel or beyond, but state transportation officials have refused.

Paul J. Weidefeld, administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, said everyone benefits from public transportation.

"We move 330,000 people a day," Weidefeld said. "If those people were on the highways, it would make congestion worse."

If Maryland flunks minimal federal air quality standards, development could be sharply curbed, he said.

"The pendulum is moving much more toward transit," he said. "We're a very wealthy state. We understand what transit can do. We're reaching a limit on highways."

State law requires riders to pay 40 percent of mass transit operating costs, but spokesman Richard Solli said the average is about 32 percent. Baltimore's light rail system is lowest, at 19 percent in fiscal 2007, but ridership was down because of double-track construction closures, Solli said.

Over the past six years, the state has spent an average $3.5 billion annually on transportation, said Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Of that, 33 percent went for state highways, with another 15 percent to local governments for roads. By comparison, Baltimore and Washington mass transit systems got a combined 29 percent.

Changed atmosphere

Kari Appler, former director of Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, mused at the Howard County Council meeting last week that many of her previous appearances had been in "hostile" circumstances as the former council struggled with the smoking issue.

This time, all was lightness and good cheer as she was up for membership on the county Board of Health.

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