Leading transit into the future


TRANSPORTATION IDEAS are plentiful these days, but good ideas need good leadership to become workable plans. Who makes the call for the state on federally funded projects? Ultimately Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but divided authority and divided interest in the Baltimore region have kept a strong plan from reaching his desk, in sharp contrast to the push for transit money from the Washington area.

Many parties share responsibility for the lag in Baltimore area transit initiatives. Mass Transit Administration planners need to bring their services into the 21st century. Baltimore City needs to coordinate its transportation planning. The players are scattered; some work at City Hall, others at the Planning Department and the Transportation Bureau of the Department of Public Works, reflecting the absence transportation leadership.

The Maryland Department of Transportation has contributed to the inertia by clinging to an outmoded method of transportation planning -- the secretary makes annual trips to the jurisdictions to determine how to mete out transportation projects that will have an impact on the entire region. Recommended regional plans should be in place before the secretary makes tours.

How regional planning should be guided is spelled out in federal law that governs distribution of money for big-ticket transportation projects. The law says the transportation planning process is to be "carried out by the metropolitan planning organization in cooperation with the state and transit operators."

In the Baltimore region, the certified metropolitan planning organization is the Transportation Steering Committee, an arm of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Last year, bureaucrats running TSC were too busy quibbling with the federal transportation agencies to worry themselves with visionary transportation planning.

Now that the elected executives of the regional jurisdictions have openly taken charge of the TSC, they must convene the appropriate players and come up with a regional plan for transit dollars. Though many proposed projects are in the city, surrounding counties would benefit from the improvements, just as the region benefits from beltway widening in Baltimore County or Anne Arundel County.

The TSC should set up a transit committee to focus on unmet needs, but it should not be limited to planners and other bureaucrats. Residents, businesses, nonprofits agencies and other users should be able to participate.

Recent reforms have created an opportunity for TSC to become an effective regional institution, where the public can have its say about transportation issues. A 15-minute period is set aside at the beginning of each monthly meeting for the public to address the committee. Audience members may also comment on proposals before votes are cast. The mayors of Baltimore and Annapolis and the executives of five counties are committed to participate personally in these meetings four times a year. This year's first meeting is scheduled at 5: 30 p.m. Tuesday at BMC headquarters, 601 N. Howard St. The Citizens Advisory Committee also meets monthly and is open to everyone.

One element of institutional reform remains to be addressed at TSC: the imbalance of population representation. A small county such as Carroll has the same voting power as Baltimore City and Baltimore County, which have four or five times the population.

Enlarging TSC will allow for representation weighted by population. It will also afford an opportunity to redress the racial imbalance, in which a regional population of nearly 2.5 million that is 68 percent white entrusts its transportation planning to a metropolitan planning organization that is perceived to be suburban, automobile dominated and 100 percent white.

TSC needs to roll up its sleeves, broaden its base of participation and go to work to champion improved public transportation for the region.

Gerald P. Neily is a former Baltimore transportation planner. Robert C. Keith follows transportation issues from his home in Fells Point.

Getting nowhere

Wednesday: Bringing Baltimore's transit system from a jumbled mess to a coordinated system.

Yesterday: Bus routes, derived from old streetcar lines, have changed little over the years. But the neighborhoods along them have - as have the needs of riders.

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