Flanagan's tale about bus wheels nothing but spin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan is fond of saying that his team inherited a "bus wheel problem" from the previous administration.

Now Mr. Flanagan is using his often-heard erroneous claim to obfuscate the real issue - drastic underfunding of the Maryland Transit Administration in his department's six-year budget plan, including a 90 percent reduction in the maintenance allotment.

It is time to set the record straight.

From August 2001 through mid-June 2002, the MTA did indeed have a grievous bus wheel problem. There were 18 incidents in which wheels fell off moving buses, some of which caused injuries. Under an acting administrator, the MTA tried to keep a lid on the problem.

Within 24 hours of the story having appeared in The Sun on May 26, 2002, then-Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari had accepted full responsibility and launched a two-pronged inquiry by department auditors and a private consulting firm. He took immediate measures to ensure rider safety and brought rider advocacy groups into the discussion.

Within a week, MTA's acting administrator had stepped down, and Robert L. Smith, the highly regarded vice president of bus operations for the Chicago Transit Authority, was hired June 20, 2002, to take over as head of MTA. He oversaw the retrofitting of rear wheels on all buses in the fleet, established a maintenance superintendent position, retrained maintenance personnel and instituted procedures to ensure that a fully inspected, safe fleet of buses would always be available.

No more wheels fell off buses. It would be seven months before Mr. Flanagan took over from Mr. Porcari.

A 21-page report released Nov. 21, 2002, documented that the wheel problem had resulted from failures on a number of levels, including top leadership, maintenance training and parts use. This report underscored the urgency of the reforms under way at MTA.

What the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mr. Flanagan inherited in January 2003 was an MTA well on the mend from the bus wheels catastrophe.

They also inherited a robust and secure Transportation Trust Fund as well as numerous statewide transit investments spurred by the previous administration's $502 million Governor's Transit Initiative. These projects included popular neighborhood shuttles operating in Hamden and Mondawmin and on the drawing boards for South Baltimore and Towson.

Additionally, a Baltimore Region Rail System Plan that envisioned accessibility and connectivity for the entire region was put into their hands. It prioritized an east-west Red Line and a northeast Green Line extension of the Metro.

Within a couple of years, the Transportation Trust Fund had been heavily raided with a transfer of $500 million to the general fund. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's transit initiative was forgotten, and neighborhood shuttles were a thing of the past.

The region's rail plan nearly met the same fate. Governor Ehrlich had no intention of seeking construction funding for the Red Line and Green Line from Congress in its six-year transportation reauthorization bill.

Only after Mayor Martin O'Malley, county executives and a delegation of city and transit advocates - strongly supported by our congressional delegation - descended on Annapolis on March 5, 2003, did Governor Ehrlich include the funding in the state's request.

Now Mr. Flanagan likes to take credit for launching the Red Line.

Mr. Flanagan's disingenuous claims must not distract us from what matters. Once again our region's public officials must demand sufficient funding for good transit in a crucial six-year spending plan. Transit loses when Mr. Flanagan spins a wheels story.

Barbara Cutko is co-chairwoman of the Transit Riders League of Metropolitan Baltimore. Her e-mail is bcutko@msn.com.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

Barbara Cutko, the author of "Flanagan's tale about bus wheels nothing but spin" on yesterday's Opinion * Commentary page, was misidentified. She was co-chairwoman of the Transit Riders League of Metropolitan Baltimore from 2002 to 2003. The Sun regrets the error.
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