Stung by a public outcry, the Ehrlich administration is backing off many of the most controversial changes it had proposed in May as part of a sweeping restructuring of Baltimore-area bus routes and will adopt a more gradual approach to overhauling the system.
State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan told The Sun yesterday that the original version of the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative - intended for implementation Oct. 16 - was now "inoperative."
The original plan would have cut the system's total route miles by 14 percent and taken 90 buses a day off the streets during the peak evening hours.
It received an angry reception from riders at a series of public hearings last month - especially from African-American city dwellers who are the heaviest users of the system. In many cases, the changes would have cut riders' access to their jobs or forced them to walk additional blocks to a bus stop.
Without providing specifics, Flanagan said the Maryland Transit Administration would phase in some of the less controversial changes starting in October while trying to build a consensus around other parts of the original plan.
"What we are putting together for October are changes that substantially improve bus service but were not as controversial as some of the other proposed changes," the transportation chief said.
He said he expects to unveil a new plan by the end of next week, adding that bus operators would have to begin by training by Aug. 1 to implement the changes. Flanagan said the modifications to the original plan will be substantial - some route changes will be abandoned and others postponed until next year.
The route changes had been shaping up as a potentially potent political issue in next year's gubernatorial race. Some Baltimore elected officials said the Ehrlich administration is making a prudent retreat.
"To Flanagan's credit, he saw what was happening and I thought he listened," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat whose Seventh District includes many of the least affluent parts of Baltimore.
But Cummings said the news was no cause for celebration.
"I don't think this is some gift from the administration," he said. "We've got to remain vigilant."
State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who was on her way to a meeting to protest the proposed elimination of the No. 61 bus route through Roland Park when she received a reporter's call, said Flanagan's decision to scale back the plan was an "exciting" development.
"I've met so much on this bus stuff that my head is hurting," the Baltimore Democrat said. "The implementation of this would have been nightmarish."
Dan Pontious, policy director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said he was surprised but pleased by the decision.
"It seems they're paying the price for not having built a consensus around their original plan," he said.
Flanagan said that while some of the proposed changes would not be implemented, many more should be made - but only after they had won more support.
"We want to work with affected communities to build a consensus and to solve as many problems for individually impacted customers as possible," he said.
Flanagan's statements came the same day he allowed the public comment period on the original plan to end, rejecting the calls of elected officials and some community groups for additional time.
He said further delay could prevent the MTA from introducing the changes it does make before the end of daylight-saving time on Oct. 30. But he said the closing of the formal comment window does not mean an end to what he called "the listening period."
"We will continue to listen to people about how the proposed changes will affect them," he said.
U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Third District Democrat, said the original rationale for the initiative was to modernize the system and bring the routes into line with current residential and employment patterns.
The original plan, he said, raised questions about whether it was more geared to cutting back service.
"This is not something that's a minor impact on people's lives," he said. "Changing bus routes is a pretty important decision."