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If 'no new taxes' means no transportation plan, that's wrong

January 22, 1999

Talk about raising taxes to pay for roads or mass transit and legislative knees begin to jerk. Even before a citizen panel featuring local businessman Donald Bowman had finished studying funding alternatives, state Sen. Alex Mooney and Delegates Joseph Bartlett and Louise Snodgrass had declared themselves opposed to any sort of tax increase, whether it's a hike in the gas tax or the state sales tax.

Del. John Donoghue was opposed, too, saying that his constituents "aren't using the Metro system and shouldn't be paying for it."

State Sen. Don Munson came closest to a measured approach, saying that there ought to be a regional sales tax enacted, so that those who use mass transit are the ones paying for it.

None of this rhetoric, unfortunately, or even all of it put together, add up to a plan or a sensible approach to the problem of local transportation. That's not a good thing, given the fact that Washington County is at the crossroads of two interstate highways, and that the county's prosperity depends, in large measure, on having a good transportation network.

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First let's dispose of the myths:

Myth No. 1 - Local people don't use the Metro. The Maryland Mass Transit Administration says that the shuttle bus that picks up riders from Hagerstown's Motor Vehicle Administration parking lot and takes them to the Shady Grove Metro station gets an average of 38 a day, up from just 22 a day this past June.

More are expected, according to Frank Fulton, a MTA spokesman, because the state will soon launch its "Transit Plus" program to sell employers bus passes at a discount, which they'll then re-sell (or give away) to their workers.

And that commuter total doesn't include those local folks who drive their own cars or carpool to the Metro station. In December 1995, the State Highway Administration predicted that early in the next century, Interstate 270 traffic would increase by more than 50,000 cars a day in that corridor between U.S. 15 in Frederick and the Shady Grove exit.

Myth No. 2 - There's plenty of money in the state Transportation Fund. That's true for now, but last year Congress approved a bill that will give Maryland an extra $110 million each year from now until 2003. The only catch is that to get that extra dough, Maryland must find funds to match $1 for every $4 its gets from the feds. Losing the cash might mean cancelling or scaling back $125 million worth of projects, including an $36 million upgrade of the interchange at the intersection of interstates 70 and 270 near Frederick.

And we haven't even talked about the Interstate 81 corridor yet, where traffic has grown by 14,000 vehicles a day in just four years. In the past 30 years, traffic has tripled, with big trucks making up 40 percent of the load, on a road where planners originally envisioned only 15 percent of the traffic would be the big rigs.

Adding lanes won't be cheap. A 1997 study estimated it would cost $95.3 million to widen the portion of Interstate 81 that runs through Hagerstown to six lanes. A study of what's needed to do that could take up to two years, according to James Latimer, head of the Quad State I-81 Improvement Task Force, and construction might not begin for eight to 10 years.

Just for fun, let's assume that although I-81 traffic has grown by 14,000 vehicles a day in the last four years, that it will only grow by only 20,000 vehicles per day in the next eight. That would be 84,000 vehicles a day, more than 20,000 of which will be trucks. Based on past growth, my estimate in probably on the low side.

Are you tired of numbers? Me too, but they help me make my point: Just the road needs of this area justify some sort of tax increase, be it in the gasoline tax or sales tax.

And because construction takes time, it makes sense to stop looking at mass transit as something that drains cash that could be spent on roads and bridges. Mass transit - shuttle buses, rail and the subway systems - is something that could keep enough people off the roads so that they'll remain drivable, 'til something else gives.

For this region's commuters, some relief will come in 2001, when the MARC train reaches Frederick. According to MTA's Fulton, the train will stop at Frederick Mall and at the East Street station downtown, and will be fed riders by the Frederick Transit bus system.

For a long time I've predicted that when that happens, a lot of people will figure out that they can ride the train to Frederick, then drive 20 minutes more and cut their housing costs significantly in Washington County. When they get here, with their cars, we might just need some road money for local projects.

It's easy and popular to speak out against tax increases, even when they would be relatively painless, but Washington County is facing a mighty flood of traffic, and unlike the Biblical Noah, we can't climb aboard an ark to escape it. "No new taxes" is a slogan. For transportation, Washington County needs a plan.

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