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Difficult problems can grease the way for bad solutions

September 14, 2008

With age comes unmerited paranoia, so perhaps I can be forgiven for being suspicious when the announcement of a catastrophic crisis is followed up 30 seconds later by the announcement of a miraculous solution.

It may also be a dubious solution, but we're so relieved by the avoidance of the catastrophe that we turn a blind eye to the solution's consequences. Not only that, we fail to inquire as to what caused the catastrophe in the first place.

So we hear that the state of Maryland is facing yet another major financial crisis, as the lousy economy has contributed to a revenue shortfall that could lead to a $1 billion deficit.

However - life would be a lot easier on us if we would pass an amendment allowing slot machines.

And we hear that "looming reliability concerns" in the nation's electrical grid could lead to regional blackouts as soon as 2012.

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However - all we need to guarantee that our lights will stay on is a towering transmission line running roughshod through some of our most scenic and historically significant lands.

See? Never fear, solutions exist and we will all be saved. Never mind that they are rotten solutions and that we are told we have little choice but to accept them, since we've been backed into a corner by years of inadequate preparation and poor decisions.

I suspect a number of people will vote in favor of slots, just because they've become sick of hearing about them over the past decade. Might as well get the issue off the table once and for all and move on.

Maryland benefits from being an affluent state, but that benefit is also a curse. Lawmakers with, one supposes, free consciences have treated its wealthy populace as an ATM, withdrawing a higher proportion of cash with each impending financial crises. And while the wealthy, in theory, may be able to shoulder the load, the taxes also affect middle and lower classes that increasingly can't.

After the special taxing session of a year ago (that was supposed to be a be-all, end-all fix), it's hard to believe the state can come back next winter and say it needs more - that the permanent fix was permanent for all of nine months.

Slots would alleviate, to a degree, the painful realization that the state has blown it yet again. So let them have their slots. Give them one more injection of financial heroin, to put off the withdrawal for another year or two, by which time they'll have spent it all up and will have to tell us that they're broke again.

Likewise, the choice of a transmission line is hardly a choice at all.

The 290-mile line from St. Albans, W.Va., to Kemptown, Md., appears at this point to be a forgone conclusion. It's needed "to keep the lights on," we are told, and without it several existing lines are in danger of overloading, which could lead to the type of grid breakdown we saw in 2003.

Through the scenic and populated areas of the mid-Atlantic, there are few good places for a high-voltage power line, but some of the proposed routes would chew up long swaths of otherwise desirable landscape. (I doubt the multiple-route proposals are a coincidence - it's an effective tool for dividing and conquering the opposition.)

I suppose that, wherever it goes, we will eventually get used to the line and it will become part of the scenery. Life will go on, and Montgomery Countians will continue to enjoy the reliable operation of their carrot juicers.

But while the viewshed and the historical integrity of spots such as Antietam National Battlefield are serious concerns, the bigger problem is that this line is a $1.8 billion tether to the past.

Power companies are correct; there is indeed a critical need for this electricity. But this line will connect population centers in the East to old, fossil-fuel-generated technologies in the coalfields. Unlike older lines, this new one will be a monument to our failure to plan ahead on energy issues.

Because we've gotten cold feet on nuclear power, because Congress hasn't thrown its full weight behind alternative energies, and because conservation and efficiencies have been ignored, this ugly line will be our punishment.

"I am afraid we are reaping what was sown (or not sown) when it comes to energy," said an attorney with familiarity of the issue.

In the short run, this coal-generated power will help. It will supply us with relatively cheap electricity. But as federal climate-change law inevitably becomes more strict, this energy will become significantly more expensive at best, or unavailable at worst. In the historical sense, this line may enjoy a very brief limelight.

Were lawmakers not inclined to spend every spare second raising cash and more cash for their own campaigns, they might have time to think past the next election. They might figure out a financially responsible long-term budget that would anticipate economic downturns. They might figure out where our energy would come from in the coming decades without waiting until the substation is dry.

But that isn't how things ever work. So we're stuck with intellectually and morally bereft solutions that include bell-ringing boxes that accept quarters and giant scratches through our ever-diminishing rural countryside.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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