MARYLAND

Group Seeks Probe of Cigarette Pricing

A Maryland antismoking group alleges that tobacco companies are trying to draw Maryland smokers out of state to buy their cigarettes.

Smoke Free Maryland and other antismoking groups from Pennsylvania, Delaware and the District are asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the companies have lowered cigarette prices in states bordering Maryland after a 30 cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase went into effect in July.

Maryland's tax is now 66 cents per pack, among the highest in the region.

Only One Car Was in Crash, Police Say

Montgomery County police have abandoned their initial assessment that a second vehicle was responsible for the crash of a car in Potomac on Wednesday that left a 74-year-old Bethesda woman seriously injured.

Investigators said Wednesday that they thought a second car had left the scene. They have now concluded that damage found on Elizabeth Yoder's car was from another recent collision. The cause of that accident remains under investigation.

Yoder, of the 6700 block of Melody Lane, was traveling east on River Road at Harrington Road when her car left the pavement, hit a utility pole and overturned. She was listed in serious condition yesterday at Suburban Hospital, police said.

Officer Derek Baliles, a police spokesman, said investigators have not yet determined what caused Yoder's car to leave the road.

Baltimore a Student Loan Test City

Baltimore and Austin have been chosen by the U.S. Education and Treasury departments as test cities for a campaign to collect $24 billion in unpaid student loans.

Federal officials said yesterday that they want to increase awareness about the responsibility to pay back student loans.

The cities were chosen for the pilot program because of their high numbers of people with student loans and college-educated adults.

Baltimore residents have 88,000 active accounts in default for $294 million, the department said. Austin residents have 26,000 delinquent accounts worth about $128 million.

THE REGION

Beltway Accidents Hamper Morning Rush

A pair of accidents involving 10 cars on the outer loop of the American Legion Bridge at the beginning of yesterday's morning rush hour backed up traffic along the Capital Beltway as far as College Park and along Interstate 270 to Germantown.

The chain-reaction crashes, which closed three of four Beltway lanes but left no one injured, began at 6:40 a.m. when a car abandoned on the bridge by a motorist who went looking for gasoline was struck by another vehicle, said David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

He said the disabled cars blocked traffic until nearly 8 a.m., when state police completed a preliminary investigation of the site and allowed them to be cleared. The resulting tie-ups, however, continued for most of the morning.

Red Line Delays to Continue

Delays and crowding on Metro's Red Line probably will continue until the weekend because a disabled train is stuck on a side track near the Grosvenor station, Metro officials said.

Bea Hicks, Metro's chief operating officer for rail, said a Red Line train was taken out of service because of "motor problems" on Tuesday and then became stuck on a side track, blocking an area normally used to turn around outbound Red Line cars and head them in to pick up passengers during peak travel periods. Metro now must run outbound Red Line trains to the end of the line at Shady Grove before they can be turned around for return trips into the busiest stations, Hicks said.

To try to speed the flow of trains and keep them running at three-minute intervals, Metro has been using four-car trains instead of the usual six-car trains, Hicks said. That means the cars become crowded more quickly, she said.

VIRGINIA

Arlington's Benefits Appeal to Be Heard

The Virginia Supreme Court will decide whether Arlington can continue to provide health insurance benefits to its unmarried workers' domestic partners, officials said yesterday.

The court agreed on Wednesday to hear Arlington's appeal of a March Circuit Court decision in which a judge ruled that the county's policy was prohibited under state law.

Two years ago, Arlington became the first jurisdiction in Virginia to adopt such a policy. But Circuit Court Judge Benjamin N.A. Kendrick, ruling in a lawsuit filed by three county residents, said state law does not give local governments the authority to define "dependent" as including both married and unmarried partners.

Kendrick said at the time he hoped the county would appeal his decision so the issue could be addressed by the high court.

Jordan Lorence, the plaintiffs' attorney, said, "Arlington County is giving benefits to people who are . . . essentially in common law cohabiting relationships which are not recognized under Virginia law."

Arlington Meters Net $300,000 More

A year-old requirement that disabled drivers in Arlington pay parking meters has resulted in an increase of $300,000 annually in meter revenue and has cut down on fraud, according to a recent county review.

Before the measure took effect, up to 90 percent of the cars on some county streets displayed disabled placards and were therefore exempt from meter fees, said police Capt. Rich Alt. Today, with no free parking for anyone, the number of placards is down significantly, based on routine police checks, he said.

Alt said people either would lie about a disability to obtain a placard or would use the placard of a disabled family member to avoid paying for parking.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"If we manage this well--and that's the $149 million question--in all its aspects, this should be extremely beneficial for Columbia Heights and the entire city."

-- D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) on development proposals approved yesterday to transform a neighborhood that was partially burned and looted by rioters 31 years ago, neglected by developers and fumbling bureaucrats and ravaged by Metro construction.