WHEN IT COMES to mass transit, Washington - with considerable help from the state and federal governments - has been eating Baltimore's lunch for decades.
As a result, it may not be possible for Baltimore to catch up to the capital's 40-year jump on creating a first-class regional mass transit system. But Maryland must aggressively commit to doing that - and the time for showing that commitment is right now.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must put expansion of Baltimore's light-rail and subway lines high on a list of Maryland transportation priorities due in Congress by the end of this month. He must follow with pressure on Washington to put funds for the first new transit lines in the federal transportation reauthorization bill this fall - a funding opportunity that comes around only once every six years.
This is so fundamentally critical to the future of Baltimore, its suburbs and the entire state that there shouldn't be any question regarding the governor's full support for moving forward with this initial stage of the Baltimore regional rail plan - the new 20-to-40-year road map for forging a modern mass transit system that would tightly tie the region together by adding 66 miles of new lines to the 43 now in place.
But Mr. Ehrlich's first transportation budget shows Montgomery and Prince George's counties continue to hog limited state transportation funds. In that six-year spending plan, according to a Greater Baltimore Committee analysis, Washington-area road and transit projects would get about four times more money than Baltimore area projects. Moreover, the governor's plan includes less than $2 million of the $10 million needed over the next two fiscal years to keep moving forward with the rail plan.
To build the first extensions of the rail system - a new Red Line from Social Security's Woodlawn complex to Fells Point and a Green Line addition from Johns Hopkins Medical Campus to Morgan State University - would take $700 million over the next six years and about $2 billion in all over the next decade. The state would have to pick up as much as 50 percent of that.
Those doubting the value of this investment of as much as $1 billion by the state may argue that more rail won't alleviate the Baltimore region's growing traffic congestion. Neither would concentrating just on building more highways: Studies show that big-ticket road projects - such as the proposed $1.5 billion Intercounty Connector in the Washington area - often actually induce more traffic, ultimately producing just as much congestion.
Most important, the Baltimore regional rail plan offers something more roads can't deliver: badly needed development opportunities along the system, providing a concrete regional blueprint for luring lost jobs, residents and all manner of economic activity back into the heart of Maryland.
From the start of his gubernatorial campaign through last week, Mr. Ehrlich repeatedly has stressed his commitment to restoring health to Baltimore - and his understanding that as the city goes, so goes Maryland. He now has the chance to prove he really means it. As we've said before, a first-class mass transit system in itself might not transform Baltimore, but the city - and region - can't be transformed without it.