Howard takes the wheel [Editorial]

Easily overlooked in the waning days of the legislative session was a dust-up over how best to manage suburban transit in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Howard County announced the creation of a Regional Transportation Agency, or RTA, to oversee bus services, and that raised the hackles of those who support the existing system run by a private nonprofit group, Central Maryland Regional Transit.

The result was some hardball lobbying in Annapolis and a budget amendment inserted by Anne Arundel County Sen. James "Ed" DeGrange Sr. to withhold state funding for the RTA until a task force can report on the best future for the local bus system. That, in turn, caused Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to announce he's moving forward with the RTA anyway.

As turf wars go, this was relatively minor stuff, but there are some principles involved that deserve a spotlight. One is that these bus routes, run by private contractors and serving Howard, Anne Arundel and parts of Prince George's counties, deserve greater investment and modernization then they have received in recent years. The second is that the brouhaha shouldn't give a bad name to RTAs because a truly regional transit authority, particularly one with the power to collect local taxes, may be vital for Baltimore's future.

But first a tip of the hat to Mr. Ulman for not accepting the status quo and seeking to squeeze greater efficiency out of the bus system — something CMRT should have done years ago. He claims that the RTA can shave about $2 million in administrative costs from the $16.5 million system for which Howard County already pays more than $11 million, or 70 percent of the bill. CMRT disputes that such savings exist, but the task force should offer an objective view.

CMRT, which has managed the system for a quarter-century, may see this as a "power grab" by Mr. Ulman and a blow against regional cooperation in matters of transportation, but that's probably not the view of Howard County taxpayers who stand to benefit. The RTA also has the support of Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman, which may ultimately spell the demise of CMRT since it leaves only the buses running in Laurel and Prince George's County in the organization's hands.

Clearly, the transition won't be pretty, and it's left some ill-will with CMRT supporters like the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber. The new contract means the loss of a couple of dozen jobs at CMRT, and the fact that the RTA is being run by a former CMRT employee has caused considerable finger-pointing. Still, it's difficult to argue that Howard County doesn't have a right to decide where and how its tax dollars are spent.

What supporters should be focused on is improving transit services in the suburbs where, despite the growth of jobs at Fort Meade and in Howard County, there's been no expansion of bus services in the last six years. There mere creation of the RTA won't necessarily change that, but if Mr. Ulman's finds the efficiencies he claims exist, the savings are expected to be plowed into service upgrades.

We hope that Howard's RTA is just the beginning of a new look at how transit services are financed and managed in the Baltimore-Washington region. It's clear that the old way of paying for transportation projects — dipping into the statewide Transportation Trust Fund and expecting support from the federal government — is insufficient despite last year's gas tax increase.

The Baltimore region must find a better way to pay for transit in the future. Private-public partnerships are an attractive option where viable, but regional taxes may be required as well. One possibility would be to add a penny to the sales tax but only in the Baltimore area and only to finance transportation projects in that same region. Baltimore and the suburban counties would, in turn, have a greater say in where and how the money is spent and how the transportation systems are operated.

Perhaps the Howard RTA will be the start of a new approach, or maybe it will be remembered only as a turf war that pitted Mr. Ulman, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor this year sharing a ticket with Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, against a powerful Senate budget subcommittee chairman. Only the former should hold much interest for the citizens of Maryland who ought to support not only improved transit and regional cooperation but also cost-effectiveness.

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