FROM THE back stream to the mainstream. That's where U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta pledged this week he would take the nation's mass transit agenda.
Mr. Mineta's words were symphonic to the American Public Transportation Association, which seeks more government spending for buses and rail.
Some members had feared a Republican administration would doom public transit. But President Bush's budget for next year does not reduce previously agreed-upon transit funds, although it sharply cuts overall transportation spending.
Mr. Mineta, the only Democrat in the Bush Cabinet, told the group he believes transit is a nonpartisan issue that boosts the environment and economic development.
The first Asian-American to serve in the Cabinet (as commerce secretary under former President Clinton), Mr. Mineta was a key transit supporter during his 21 years in Congress and as mayor of San Jose, Calif.
He has seen transit work for the nation's communities, and he wants to invest in systems that would provide job access, safety and environmental benefits.
But having an ally as DOT secretary doesn't mean state and local officials have unlimited access to the federal treasury. Mr. Mineta advised them to send strong, well-thought-out proposals to Washington.
That's Gov. Parris N. Glendening's job. His Smart Growth policy has made him an apostle among national transit planners, as was evident from the rousing ovation he got Monday from the APTA audience.
But Mr. Glendening must do for Baltimore what he's done for the Washington area: submit rail expansion proposals that can withstand federal scrutiny and haul in matching funds.
New routes must strengthen the existing system and boost ridership. And there must be a strong state financial commitment. These ingredients could make the difference in getting federal dollars for a downtown light-rail loop and east-west rail extensions in Baltimore.
Transit officials may have a friend at DOT, but they must convince him that his boss will get the maximum return for a big federal investment.