Some Northwest Baltimore residents expressed outrage yesterday at a letter sent by State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan proposing to trade bus service for the scuttling of public hearings on future transit changes.
Copies of the letter, which Flanagan sent to 41st District legislators last week, were circulating through African-American churches yesterday.
"I'm a Republican, and I'm incensed at what's happened. It shows a lack of respect and an insensitivity to the needs of the people," said Melvin Bilal, part of a group of community activists and bus riders who gathered yesterday morning at Concord Baptist Church.
By yesterday afternoon, Flanagan had backtracked. He called a reporter to say he was dropping preconditions for quickly restoring service on the M6, which was abolished by the Maryland Transit Administration in October. Flanagan said service would resume in about two weeks at the level he originally offered to Sen. Lisa A. Gladden and Dels. Samuel I. Rosenberg, Jill P. Carter and Nathaniel T. Oaks.
But community leaders and MTA customers said the level of service Flanagan is offering - nine rides each weekday between Rogers Station and the Social Security Administration or Security Square Mall - is unacceptable. The said the proposed M6 would offer about one-eighth the number of rides it did before October, when the MTA launched a large bus route restructuring that included elimination of the line along Gwynn Oak Avenue.
Flanagan said he would continue negotiations with the local legislators on the level of service. He said he still opposes legislation requiring public hearings, saying it could delay the second phase of the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative, scheduled for June 11, for as much as a year.
The M6 elimination was one of the most controversial parts of the first phase of the most comprehensive restructuring of the region's bus routes in three decades. The route, which served the Howard Park neighborhood, ran every 15 minutes at rush hour on weekdays and every 30 minutes at midday, and included weekend service.
When the General Assembly session opened, lawmakers from the district - along with Sen. Verna L. Jones of the neighboring 44th District - sponsored legislation requiring a new round of public hearings before the second phase could go ahead.
Flanagan contended that the hearings the MTA held last summer, along with more informal community meetings held since then, have given the agency sufficient public input. But many riders contend the first round of changes hurt service and say they're in no hurry to begin a second round.
"Why are you going to rush and do everything at one time?" said Jones, a Democrat who successfully pushed to include the hearing requirement in the Senate budget bill.
Flanagan laid out the proposed deal to resume M6 service in a March 6 letter to legislators.
"In fairness to all our MTA customers who will benefit from the change planned for June 11, 2006, this service can be initiated early only with your unanimous representation and assurance that no such legislation will be enacted," Flanagan wrote.
The hardball negotiating tactic was nothing unusual in the political back-and-forth of Annapolis. But what happens in Annapolis doesn't necessarily stay there. In this case, the letter made its way back to community activists in Northwest Baltimore - one of whom provided a copy to The Sun late Friday.
The linkage incensed community leader Mercedes Eugenia, who called Flanagan's stance "depraved indifference."
By yesterday, before Flanagan's reversal, activists were circulating the letter in churches around the city. At Concord, Quinton Hill, who collected hundreds of signatures protesting the M6 elimination, called the proposed deal "blackmail."
The Rev. Matthew L. Jones, Concord's pastor, said the letter "appears to be kind of unethical."
"I can't see how they can possibly trade off seniors and children for some kind of political swing-about," he said. Jones said he would raise the M6 issue at a state Baptist convention of about 135 churches serving more than 200,000 people.
"The buck stops at the governor's office," Jones said. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "needs to look at it comprehensively and not let it become a political issue for him later in the year," he said.
Riders and activists at Concord yesterday said they don't want their representatives making a bargain to eliminate hearings.
"We want the M6 back - period," said Social Security employee Joyce Fuller, who said the loss of the M6 has added hours to her commuting time. "We don't want to make any deals."
Flanagan defended his position on an M6 deal as "a political response to a political bill." He described the M6 as "a very marginal line" and said only about 250 of its 2,500 riders had been affected by the elimination of service along Gwynn Oak Avenue.
But Eugenia, president of the Howard Park Civic Association, said the M6 was a "crown jewel" of the MTA. "The M6 ran every 15 minutes like clockwork. It never, ever ran empty," she said.
Eugenia and others said the community see the issue as being tinged with racial and class considerations. Flanagan rejected the criticism, saying the initiative will improve bus service for transit-dependent riders - primarily African-Americans.
The transportation secretary continued to clarify his position in phone calls through the weekend.
On Saturday, he expressed dismay that the letter was made public. Flanagan said he had been holding productive negotiations with the delegates from the 41st District - though not with Gladden, whom he said was holding out for hearings.
The transportation secretary, who said his letter was taken out of context, defended his decision to link hearings to the bus routes as a legitimate process of give-and-take with legislators.
"I have priorities that reach to the entire metropolitan area," Flanagan said. He said that with a limited budget, adding resources to one line could mean cuts to others.
Rosenberg confirmed that the House delegation had been negotiating with the secretary but said no deal had been reached. He said the hearings bill has not been withdrawn and will be up for its own House hearing tomorrow.
The fate of the House bill and its Senate companion might be moot if the budget language adopted by a Senate committee is agreed to by the House. The Senate provision postpones implementation of the second phase until Oct. 1, requires hearings and adds a requirement that the MTA report to the legislature on the effectiveness of the initial series of cuts.
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees transportation spending, said he believes the language will remain in the budget.