WILL THE NEW bus routes become a gnarly bit of political symbolism for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.?
The proposed rerouting could become a shorthand version of the Ehrlich administration's mission statement: Government can't be everyone's limo service.
We'll need a new state motto: "Maryland, you can't get there from here."
We're in the deplorably early stages of the 2006 election year, so the plan could be grist for a take-off on those political commercials the governor likes to offer in the name of tourism:
"Hey, you on the street, I'm Governor Bob Ehrlich. On the way to work? Climb in! Oops, sorry. No more room. Walking is great!"
Ah, bus routes! On such concrete matters - bridge repairs that create backups and the switching around of bus routes - do political careers rise and fall. People may not understand the structural deficit (when spending commitments exceed projected income) or the AAA bond rating (a credit status that allows lower-cost borrowing), but they understand waiting for the No. 3 or the No. 52 or whatever bus they depend upon for getting to work.
Into that grim territory march Governor Ehrlich and his secretary of transportation, Robert L. Flanagan. They want to change the routes, speed up the service and eliminate the sparsely used ones. It's what a well-run business would do. But it's a politically perilous enterprise.
Public hearings, beginning tomorrow, have been scheduled to learn how the riders feel about the plan - about losing their transportation and, one might imagine, their jobs. Maybe only a few will be inconvenienced or marooned in the city. Mr. Ehrlich must hope that's the case.
The thought of hearing how the discommoded feel must be chilling to those who will stand in front of the mob to explain how efficiency will get them to jobs in surrounding counties. Owners and operators of nursing homes, hospice care centers and householders needing child care or maid service could be lining up right behind the workers. The inflamed elderly may be there, too, explaining how a few more blocks to the new bus stops may be out of the question. It won't be a pretty sight.
The Ehrlich administration deserves some credit for tackling this issue. But it won't be simply a matter of making buses run on time. The issue will inevitably become one of priority and philosophy. Critics have already called the plan a form of government-sponsored class warfare. Many of those most directly affected are black and poor. Access to jobs outside the city is already difficult; now it will be more so.
Mr. Flanagan has been saying since he arrived in his office three years ago that he's "bus-centric." Sounded like he wanted to build a better system. There were those who thought he really meant "subway-averse," and that he wanted to couch it in positive terms.
Subway lines cost a lot of money, and Maryland hasn't had much - not enough to continue subsidizing bus travel for the poor. The Transportation Trust Fund has been used to deal with other budget issues. And the governor has chosen not to raise taxes sufficiently to replenish the fund. Most Marylanders are car-centric, after all, and many are tax-phobic.
The bus-dependent may now wonder if you can be bus-centric with fewer bus lines going in unfamiliar directions.
Again, the devotion to efficient and responsible deployment of the public dollar is commendable. A Transportation Department study indicates that for one of the imperiled routes, the taxpayer subsidy was more than $9 per ride. In isolation, that's clearly deplorable. At the same time, one hopes the high cost of a line here or there can be leveled out a bit by efficiencies that fall short of termination. People have been encouraged over long years to think the system would not change. They built their lives around that assumption.
Does the state have an obligation to help people escape what seemed an altogether healthy addiction to bus transportation? Look for answers to these questions in a public hearing or a gubernatorial campaign near you.
C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.