Rapid Bus Purple Line Proposed

State officials are considering a rapid bus system instead of light rail or subway for the proposed Purple Line Metro route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Robert L. Flanagan, Maryland transportation secretary, said yesterday that the bus, which would run on its own roadway, is cheaper and more mobile than rail lines and solves problems posed by the rail plan.

Flanagan's proposal comes just a week before the state is to submit a list of transportation projects for possible federal funding. He said that because Maryland will compete with other projects nationwide for federal dollars, the bus proposal would likely have a better chance to win funding than light rail.

"The federal transit agency is very high on bus rapid transit," he said. "Leaving the option open for bus rapid transit would allow these projects to compete more effectively."

Montgomery County officials are divided over what route the Purple Line should take. Both sides want a light rail line, but business and environmental groups want the section between Bethesda and Silver Spring to run inside the Capital Beltway, above ground and in part along an existing hiker-biker trail. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has called for a line that runs at least partly outside the Beltway and largely underground.

Flanagan's bus proposal was a surprise to Duncan, according to spokesman David Weaver, who said Duncan stands by his idea.

Immigrant License Bill Sparks Debate

Survivors and relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks warned Maryland legislators yesterday that a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses would imperil national security by making it easier for terrorists to get a form of identity used to board planes and open bank accounts.

In emotional testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, 14 members of a group calling itself the Maryland Coalition Against Terrorism noted that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers had exploited Virginia's then-lax system to fraudulently obtain licenses. Virginia subsequently tightened its rules, and opponents of the Maryland measure -- including the governor and the state police -- contend that the state should not move in the opposite direction.

The committee also heard from a roughly equal number of speakers favoring the measure -- including representatives of Latino groups, area churches, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, state delegates, and national legal and civil rights groups. They argued that immigrants who lack a license suffer great hardship because they are unable to get to work or hospitals. They also contended that the bill would increase public safety by enabling many illegal immigrants who drive anyway to be tested for safety and obtain insurance.

Ehrlich Seeks Disaster Aid After Storms

Citing the estimated $55 million cost of dealing with last month's record snowfall, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) sought federal disaster assistance yesterday.

Ehrlich sent a letter to President Bush requesting assistance covering Baltimore City and 17 counties, including Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard, Anne Arundel and Frederick. Reimbursement would be for snow plowing and removal and repairs to drainage systems, rail, highway and air transportation systems.

U.S. disaster assistance guidelines allow up to 75 percent reimbursement of the costs.


Taxi Passengers Face $1 Surcharge

The D.C. Taxicab Commission has voted to impose a $1-per-trip gasoline surcharge on passengers that will remain in place for 120 days in an effort to help taxi drivers cope with higher fuel costs.

The commission, which approved the measure Tuesday by a 4 to 3 vote with one abstention, said the surcharge is scheduled to go into effect March 21, pending the arrival of window decals to alert passengers to the latest surcharge.


Health Officials to Probe Child's Death

Virginia health officials yesterday said they are investigating whether the death Monday of a Hampton Roads child is connected to the February deaths of five children in the southeastern part of the state.

Officials said the child, who died from unknown causes, was, like the others, between 2 and 7, suffered from upper respiratory problems and was not hospitalized at the time of death.

The child's death comes after the Virginia Department of Health and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched an investigation into the deaths of five children between Feb. 16 and Feb. 20. Tests have shown that two of the children had the flu and one had a strep infection. Results are pending on the others.

Michelle Stoll, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health, said epidemiologists are studying tissue samples and cultures to find out why the children died.

Fairfax Schools Official to Step Down

Robert E. Frye Sr., who has served on the Fairfax County School Board for nearly two decades and was among its first black members, announced yesterday that he would not seek reelection in November.

"I have seen a lot, and I think I've had the opportunity to make some contributions to improving the way our schools operate," said Frye, 66, an at-large member.

In the early 1970s, as part of the group Reston Black Focus, Frye lobbied the School Board to devote one seat on the board to a minority. He became the third such appointee.

"I was an angry parent," he said. "I was very concerned the school district was not meeting the needs of black children."

In 1978, he was appointed to the board and served until 1985. He served again from 1989 to 1993. In 1995, when school boards became elected, Frye won a seat and has served since.

Frye, a father of two who lives in Springfield, spearheaded an effort to base the county's funding formulas on schools' individual student needs versus enrollment numbers. After stepping down, he said, he plans to work as an education and consumer safety consultant and might again seek public office.

"This is the most scathing indictment of a company I have ever seen in my public life. When this report becomes public, change is not only going to be imperative, it's going to be demanded."

-- Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) on Insurance Commissioner Steven Larsen's report on CareFirst's decision to convert to a for-profit company and sell to WellPoint Health Networks. -- Page A1

Compiled from reports by staff writers Nurith C. Aizenman, Serge F. Kovaleski, S. Mitra Kalita and Maria Glod and the Associated Press.