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Maryland Transpo chief says state's 'piggy bank' is empty

October 08, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan came to Hagerstown last week with a mission - to tell citizens what isn't in the state's list of road projects and why.

And to hear Flanagan tell it, getting your favorite project on that list may require finding a new and different way to pay for it.

Flanagan said his department's top priority, the InterCounty Connector - a proposed 18-mile limited-access highway that will cross Montgomery County from I-270 in Gaithersburg to I-95 south of Laurel - will be built with a combination of federal funds and tolls.

Depending on which side of the debate you're on, the ICC is either the solution for metro-area gridlock or a recipe for a new round of sprawl development.

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Flanagan makes no secret about how he feels, noting that even though the suburban Maryland area is No. 1 in the nation in carpooling, it's No. 3 in the nation in the "worst traffic" category, which he ascribes to the fact that Maryland is 47th in the U.S. in highway spending, according to the Government Accounting Office.

Flanagan said it was important to be able to tell other counties officials' that this project wouldn't drain the state's transportation funds.

"The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is also fully funded," he said.

With a combination of federal funds and increases in tolls, Flanagan said his department wants to begin to show citizens that "it's not business as usual."

To increase capacity on other roads like Md. 495 - the Capital Beltway -Flanagan said his department is looking at building new lanes that drivers could access only by paying a toll. New bypasses of two Carroll County towns might also be tolled, he said.

Asked if Washington County's proposed Southern Boulevard - the Funkstown Bypass - might also be built as a toll road, Flanagan said he wasn't familiar with the project. He was noncommittal when asked if it would be a good idea to include the toll option when proposing such projects.

Coming to Hagerstown shortly after Gov. Robert Ehrlich spoke here and ruled out any major tax increases, Flanagan did not endorse any boost in the state's gasoline tax, which hasn't been upped since 1992.

House Speaker Michael Busch, in a recent speech to the local chamber of commerce, said that even a 5-cent increase would only produce $120 million a year, not enough to handle everything on the drawing board in the next 10 years.

But Flanagan said the administration was not going to do anything until it heard the Hellmann Commission's recommendations on the subject.

Ehrlich wants to build credibility with the taxpayers, Flanagan said, by doing everything possible to avoid tax increases, including the possible sale of state assets like Baltimore's World Trade Center.

That also includes doing projects that make sense. The MARC rail line was extended to Frederick at a cost of $53 million, but only carries 300 passengers a day. For that cost, the state could have bought every traveler their own vehicle, he said.

Asked about the state's backing for the Hagerstown Regional Airport, Flanagan echoed the local line - a relatively small investment of cash brings in a bunch of federal dollars. Having a place where corporate travelers can link to major airports is a great economic development tool, he said.

So is Interstate 81, but Flanagan said he wasn't sure how the state would handle the $400 million cost of widening the 12-mile stretch that goes through this county. For the next six years, the Maryland Consolidated Transportation Program only includes funds to study it.

"Right now there is no money for new projects," he said, adding that "when we came into office the piggy bank was empty. It's been empty for two years now."

Of course if Ehrlich did as Speaker Busch suggests, there would be money in that piggy bank, but the governor will not willingly embrace higher taxes, at least until citizens clamor for some relief from road congestion.

The problem with that approach is that, as Flanagan notes, road-construction costs have increased by 35 percent in the past 10 years. Persuading voters to pay more now to save money in the long run will be difficult, however, since many citizens would rather hope - no matter how improbably - that a miraculous solution will present itself before a tax increase is necessary.

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