New federal rules revisit an old public/private debate

POLITICS

June 01, 2008|By LARRY CARSON

New federal transportation rules scheduled to stop the Maryland Transit Administration's $10 bus rides to and from park-and-ride lots to Orioles games starting tomorrow are based on a philosophical argument made nationally by private bus companies that they should not have to compete for special-event business with publicly subsidized buses. Similar public transit service in the Washington area to events such as Redskins football games are to end next year, according to news reports.

It's an argument that was debated in a different political context in Howard County eight years ago, when then-County Executive James N. Robey, a Democat who is now a state senator, proposed building a second publicly owned golf course on county-owned land in West Friendship, and former Republican County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman opposed it.

Kittleman, now also a state senator, argued that since government courses, such as the county-built Timbers of Troy golf course in Elkridge, pay no taxes, they can unfairly compete with privately owned courses.

Robey and his supporters felt that public courses provide a service to residents who can't afford higher private fees. In the end, the western county course wasn't built.

Kittleman feels the same way about the special-event bus service, he said.

"If there's a demand, a private company will do it," Kittleman said. Conversely, "if you can't find a private bus company to do it, I'm not opposed to [the MTA offering the service]. Should taxpayers pay for people to go to the ball games?" he asked, referring to the subsidized $10 price.

Robey's thinking hasn't changed, either.

"It's really troubling," said Robey. "If you follow that to its logical conclusion, should we take all MTA buses and light rail cars out of service? What if the private sector doesn't want to step in and offer the service?"

County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, said he understands the argument about unfair competition but that it must be balanced against a question.

"To me, it's a gray area," he said. "Is it in the public interest to get people on buses and out of their cars?"

According to state transportation officials, tougher enforcement of national rules by the Federal Transit Administration would force limitations on the services public transit agencies can offer if the services compete with private firms. It would be enforced with financial penalties for those who violate the rules. In Maryland, that means no more $10 express service to Orioles or Ravens games or to next year's Preakness, though regularly scheduled transit routes would be unaffected.

"We've had calls and inquiries" from private firms, said Jawauna Greene, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration. "This decision might have made sense a while ago, but not so much with fuel prices now." Private bus operators would have to negotiate contracts with private shopping centers or other locations where buses could stop. The MTA controls two park-and-ride lots in White Marsh and Essex, where the rides are offered, Greene said.

Ron Eyre, president of Eyre Bus Service in Howard County, said his bus company works only under contract. He has no plans to provide service to Orioles games.

"We're not going to have buses sitting at these locations unless we have a contract with the Stadium Authority" or some other state agency, he said.

Wheels

Robey is drawing lots of comment on his own new ride, a dark blue 2008 Mustang convertible, complete with a racing stripe, custom wheels and a "Senate 13" General Assembly license plate.

At the dedication of the new Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center last month, Robey drew some good-natured ribbing.

County Council Chairman Courtney Watson said jokingly that the car represented a "midlife crisis." Del. Guy Guzzone, who served on the County Council when Robey was county executive, said - as he pretended to polish the fender - that Robey, 67, "has been through a few of those [midlife crises] by now."

Robey took the comments with a smile, and pointed out that the car has a modest six-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission, "so my wife can drive it."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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