The city director of public works calls it dangerous and "schizophrenic," but today a little piece of St. Johns Street here goes the way state legislators want it to go.
Mayor Richard Hillman, who said he feared loss of state funds for a city firehouse project if he didn't "accommodate the legislators," has bowed to real, or tongue-in-cheek, pressure from the House Appropriations Committee and declared a 100-foot stretch of the one-way street two-way.
It means delegates won't have to go "all around Robin Hood's barn," as one put it, to get downtown from the parking garage under the Lowe House Office Building. Instead, they can zip out the garage door and down St. Johns to College Avenue, a main drag, for a saving of about seven-tenths of a mile.
Hillman believes refusal to make the change could have jeopardized the committee's approval of a proposed $775,000 state matching grant for a new downtown firehouse, although delegates deny they would use clout to influence a local decision.
Said Hillman, "I didn't want to risk it. Small cities are in a weak bargaining position. I've seen other bills get unfavorable reports for reasons unrelated to the specifics of the bill."
Countered Del. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery), "There was never any indication or implication that we were even halfway interested in holding up his bill in exchange for this. I don't play like that."
The appropriations committee is considering the firehouse grant as repayment to the city for local public services provided to the tax-exempt state government. It's serious business, all agree, but when Hillman testified about the firehouse on March 2, he said one of the first questions was, "When are you going to turn that street around?"
Five days later a letter signed by 14 of the 24 committee members arrived asking, "When are you going to make St. Johns Street two-way? We look forward to your reply!"
Did he feel approval of the grant depended on street action? "How could you interpret it any other way?" asked Hillman. He caved in.
Del. Philip Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel) said the letter was meant as a humorous response to a gadfly poll the mayor had conducted to see if a "consitutional majority" of the 141 delegates (71 members) wanted the street two-way. The vote was 60 to 30.
"Any time he appeared before the General Assembly the first five minutes were spent on, 'What about St. Johns Street? How's the poll going?' said Jimeno. "When the letter was sent around, it wasn't, 'We're going to get him.' They'd laugh and sign it. It was something like he would do."
"I'd never use my vote to persuade any public official to do something contrary to what he feels is in the best interest of his constituents," Jimeno said."
But that's exactly the effect it's had. St. Johns Street was made one way a year ago and Hillman and Public Works Director John Patmore think it should stay that way. Patmore cited danger of head-on collisions and Hillman agreed.
It'll all be over soon enough. When the legislature ends April 11, St. Johns Street goes back to one-way. And if the committee fails to approve the firehouse grant, Hillman said he'll turn his street right back around.