TRANSIT ADVOCATES in the Baltimore region say they have a "visionary plan" for Charm City's transportation future: a subway system just like Washington's.
It's an attractive vision, to be sure, one bound to elicit oohs and aahs from the public and the press. They'll show you a map with subway lines in five colors and photo illustrations of sleek, graffiti-free rail cars, whooshing soundlessly through tunnels under the city.
What they don't show you is the invoice. It's for tens of billions of dollars.
And they won't talk about the time it would take to build. The traffic-clogging construction project would drag on for 40 years or more.
Nor do transit advocates mention that the Washington-area Metro system was largely built when the federal government funded 90 percent of subway projects, or that the system is still a work in progress a half-century after planning first began.
The administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has a vision, too - of a Mass Transit Administration that works for people today. We envision buses that run on rationally planned routes and on schedules that bear more than a passing acquaintance with reality.
We want to provide service here and now for disabled riders currently trapped in a para-transit system that is almost completely dysfunctional. We foresee a time when routine maintenance is performed routinely and when riders can depend on MTA buses and trains to take them to work and get them home at night, reliably and regularly.
In our ideal future, transit advocates would demand that wheels not fall off the buses before demanding new pie-in-the-sky capital projects that wouldn't be completed for decades and for which the money doesn't even exist.
The fact is that virtually no new heavy-rail systems of the type envisioned by so-called transit advocates are being funded anymore. Of the 19 transit projects nationally that currently receive full federal funding (that is, a 50 percent match with local funds), only one calls for heavy rail.
With that reality in mind, the Ehrlich administration has requested that Congress appropriate $15 million to begin planning and construction of a proposed Red Line, running 9.5 miles from the Social Security Administration to Fells Point, above ground as light rail or bus rapid transit (BRT).
Even light-rail and BRT systems are expensive, to be sure, but they are about one-fifth the cost of traditional heavy rail. To build the 9.5-mile stretch of the Red Line as a traditional heavy-rail, tunneled subway would cost about $2.375 billion - $250 million per mile. The federal transit pie isn't limitless, and the competition for those dollars is fierce. Our proposal must be competitive with those from other states to have a chance of being selected for funding.
It's also important to remember that the only transit accomplishment in Baltimore during the administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening was to double-track existing light rail lines. Zero dollars were requested by Mr. Glendening for the expansion of Baltimore transit six years ago, when the last federal transportation reauthorization bill was enacted.
In stark contrast, Governor Ehrlich's administration is moving forward with a request to Congress for the funding for the Baltimore Transit Plan.
Most important in the here and now is fixing the existing problems at the MTA. Bringing MTA service up to even minimally acceptable standards after years of neglect is going to be a mighty challenge. The Ehrlich administration has just begun the process of undertaking nothing less than a total change in the culture there.
We have hired a new supervisor of repairs and have just installed the first phase of the long-awaited Maximo system, a computerized tracking system that will bring bus maintenance into the 21st century. We will do everything in our power to require optimum performance of transit workers, control runaway labor costs and remove employees who are unwilling or unable to change.
Robert L. Flanagan is Maryland's secretary of transportation.