Voters need to press O'Malley, Ehrlich on local issues

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Maryland voters in the Washington suburbs are enjoying that brief period once every four years when they have a chance to ask candidates for governor the vital question: What's in it for me?

As usual, both candidates - Democratic incumbent Martin O'Malley and Republican former governor Bob Ehrlich - have their political roots in the Baltimore area. You hardly ever see candidates from around here (Parris Glendening being a recent exception), because it's so easy to smear them as rich elitists out of touch with the rest of the state.

Come campaign season, however, the Baltimore politicians fall over each other wooing voters in populous Montgomery and Prince George's counties and other Washington suburbs. So now's our chance to put them on the spot and press for answers about what they'll do to help our region.

For O'Malley, two big questions to ask are: How are you going to pay to build the Purple Line light-rail service between Bethesda and New Carrollton? And what's your plan to fix the money-losing Prince George's hospital system?

From Ehrlich, local voters need an explanation about how he'll keep school funds flowing to our area even while he tries to reduce the sales tax. He also needs to provide stronger assurances that he wouldn't just kill the Purple Line and ignore the hospitals.

Of course, many of the key issues separating the candidates involve statewide matters such as taxes, education and small-business regulation. But we need to pay attention to the parochial ones, too, because there are real differences between the candidates that will affect our region.

Perhaps the biggest division is over transportation. O'Malley is highlighting his support for sticking to the current plan for the Purple Line. That means light rail (similar to a trolley) along a route including a stretch along the Georgetown Branch Trail.

Ehrlich instead wants to switch to express buses on a more northerly route along Jones Bridge Road. He says that'd be much cheaper, so the project would have a better chance of actually being built.

However, voters have a right to worry that Ehrlich's proposal would translate into long delays or even the demise of the Purple Line. It took a lot of study and initial design work to settle on a state proposal to advance to the federal government. A change now would reopen the process and likely ensure further, prolonged battles.

On the other hand, O'Malley is vague about how he'd finance the Purple Line. Basically, he's hoping the Obama administration comes through with a big increase in federal funds for transportation in the next Congress.

"Will there be tough decisions in the future about how we pay for those things? Absolutely. The alternative now is to retreat, and take ourselves out of the running, and not even be eligible for those federal dollars," said O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

O'Malley and Ehrlich differ as well about highway tolls. If Ehrlich wins, then count on him to resume the push from his previous term to add tolled express lanes on the Beltway and I-270. O'Malley would be more likely to pay for road improvements out of general revenue, but that would probably require some form of tax increase.

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