The Ehrlich administration and advocates for the disabled settled a lawsuit over the Maryland Transit Administration's Mobility service only after breaking a logjam over the critical question of who would run the system, negotiators said yesterday.
State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan and an attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center confirmed that governance of the van and cab service was the key sticking point in reaching the agreement they announced at a celebratory news conference.
Flanagan hailed the settlement of the center's 2003 lawsuit as a "monumental position shift" in relations between advocates and the MTA.
"Together we have transformed an adversarial process into a collaborative one," Flanagan said. He gave the credit to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., saying his boss had set a clear priority of improving the system, whose performance had earned scathing reviews from federal regulators.
"Once you get clear direction from the top, the rest is problem-solving," Flanagan said.
Participants said the center and the state had been in active settlement talks - with the lawsuit put on hold - since early this year.
In the end, the two sides reached a compromise under which a consultant - jointly chosen by the Maryland Department of Transportation and disability advocates - will monitor the MTA's performance while leaving state officials in charge.
Andrew Levy, outside counsel for the disability law center, said the transportation secretary "jealously guarded" his department's prerogatives in running the once-troubled system.
"Flanagan's a tough guy and Flanagan's not a guy who takes easily to someone looking over his shoulder," Levy said. But the lawyer said that though advocates didn't doubt Flanagan's good faith, they couldn't accept what amounted to a plea to "trust me."
The settlement, he said, would leave the MTA free to run the system but preserve the right of advocates to go to the courts if the agency ignores the consultant's recommendations.
Flanagan said a breakthrough came in late summer or early fall when an independent consultant verified MTA data showing improvements in the Mobility system's on-time performance and complaint level.
Advocates for the disabled confirmed that there has been significant progress since the MTA introduced a new management scheme last year.
"I can truly say that the system is functioning much better," said Lauren Young, staff attorney for the disability center. She said Flanagan had shown "great courage" in pushing for a settlement.
Besides the agreement on the consultant's role, the settlement calls for the MTA to refrain through 2008 from changing Mobility contractors during the winter months.
Riders had expressed concerns - based on past experience - that the inevitable glitches that occur when the state changes contractors present a severe hardship during cold weather.
The MTA also agreed to continue Mobility services for at least five years to customers who become technically ineligible because of possible cutbacks to the region's bus routes under a current restructuring effort.
Flanagan said yesterday that the five-year guarantee is a minimum, and that the MTA will work with the disability center to develop a policy for the following years.