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October 5, 2010

Is transit the vision the ICC was in 2002?

Sometimes reporters conduct fascinating interviews only to find that they just don't fit into the article they're working on. So it was recently when I talked with Todd Eberly, a St. Mary's College political science professor and keen observer of Maryland politics, about transportation issues and the governor's race.

Anyway, that's the beauty of a blog. There's a way to use this stuff.

Eberly's premise is that conveying a "vision" is important for Maryland gubernatorial candidates --especially for Republican nominees. His premise is that in a heavily Democratic state, a Democrat without vision beats a Republican without vision any time.

This year, he sees Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley moving ahead of GOP challenger Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the vision stakes, at least on transportation issues.

 

Eberly said that in 2002, Ehrlich's bold stance in favor of the Intercounty Connector represented a vision for transportation in the vote-rich Washington suburbs. (Democratic nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend also favored the ICC but was heavily identified with then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who tried to kill it.) Whether you loved or hated the ICC, there is no question it was a Big Idea that voters could easily grasp.

That year Ehrlich peeled off enough votes in heavily Democratic Montgomery County – the state’s most populous jurisdiction -- to win statewide. But in 2006, with the battle of the ICC largely won by its proponents, the issue didn’t have the juice for Ehrlich it had in 2002. O’Malley won a huge majority in Montgomery and a victory statewide on a pledge to follow through on construction of the highway – a project whose first phase is now nearing completion.

Eberly said that in 2010 Ehrlich has failed to articulate a vision for transportation comparable to his message in 2002. He contends that O’Malley’s pro-transit stance, particularly his support for the Purple Line in the traffic-choked Washington suburbs, could be comparable to Ehrlich’s pro-ICC stand eight years ago. Ehrlich's support of enhhanced bus service, he said, is not an appealling vision of the future of  transit.

Politicallly, Eberly said, “This time around Martin O’Malley is on the right side of the issue, and Ehrlich is on the opposite side."

In a series of written answers to The Sun's questions about transportation issues, Ehrlich spelled out in no uncertain terms why he doesn't like light rail. It is, he said, too costly, a blight upon the neighborhoods it goes through and a boondoggle for developers.

It's an argument with some potential. Light rail is a form of transit that doesn't exactly stir the soul the way a subway or a bullet train does. But a souped-up bus service has even less appeal -- except to those whose first priority is to keep the price tag down.

During Ehrlich's previous term, then-Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan repeatedly talked up bus rapid transit without ever selling the idea to many people in the affected communities. Ehrlich is not doing a lot to make it appealing today. Telling folks it's the only alternative he'd consider isn't exactly a sales pitch.

Now Eberly could be wrong. It could be the mood in 2010 is so anti-spending that coming out against big transportation projects is perceived as vision. But there's something about Americans that gravitates toward the idea of building big things.

In his written answers to The Sun, Ehrlich referred to a plan to "connect the entire Baltimore-Washington region with a system of relatively congestion-free lanes." There's a glimmer of a vision in that but it needs to be fleshed out - and soon.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:00 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: For policy wonks only
        

Comments

Bus Rapid Transit is a fantastic alternative to light rail. It is unfortuante for it to be described as "enhanced bus service and souped up bus service". BRT is extremely similar to light rail in terms of looks and performance - with the added bonus of it being far less expensive to build and run. Using these terms confuses people into thinking it is like a regular bus. It has its own lanes and most importantly for developers, they have permanent stops. Hopefully we can get the correct information out and not throw our tax dollars away on the big cash cow that is light rail for the proposed purple line.

Sadly, I must agree with this article. I voted for Ehrlich in 2002 (and '06) and didn't this go 'round--mostly because of his stance on the red & purple lines.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.
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