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W.Va. and Pa. can widen I-81 without tolls

but not us

January 12, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Let's hope it's the longshot it appears to be, but if the breaks go right (or wrong) a whole lot of quarters could be clanking up and down Interstate 81.

The Maryland transportation department has been meeting with local officials, putting out a feeler for making Interstate 81 through Washington County a toll road to pay for a third lane in each direction.

And if that weren't enough to jingle your change, Maryland Speaker of the House Michael Busch says that instead of slots at tracks, he'd prefer casinos along interstate highways near Delaware and West Virginia borders.

Let's see, I'm looking at a map here, and the only interstate I see intersecting with West Virginia is - uh oh.

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Transportation secretary Robert Flanagan is giving Washington County a choice: If we agree to make I-81 a toll road, work can get under way soon. If not, nothing will happen for another 10 to 15 years. And oh, by the way, the state projects congestion on 81 will reach epidemic proportions in just five years.

Some choice.

Tolls are not an inherently bad idea in certain situations. They can work to fund a major new project, such as the Bay Bridge, or the proposed Intercounty Connector highway.

The I-81 project is indeed a major undertaking. It will cost $400 million, one quarter of which would be needed to overhaul the I-70/81 interchange. Yet somehow, West Virginia seems to be managing without resorting to tolls, and they have a lot more of the interstate to widen than does Maryland.

But the real joke is that the point of two more lanes on I-81 is to ease congestion and free up traffic. Toll booths cause congestion and tie up traffic. They would create three-mile backups in the name of smoother travel. Very smart. And since so many people commute to work among the three states, there will be a tendency to duck the toll booth by exiting on U.S. 11 at the borders. That could cause traffic nightmares in Williamsport and State Line, Pa.

Del. Chris Shank, R-Washington, says he's bothered by the idea of a free highway suddenly being taxed. He's also troubled by the burden it would place on our considerable local trucking industry. "But I'd hate to be sitting here in 10 years when congestion gets unbearable thinking that we had a chance to do something," and didn't.

That's true enough. Also, as Shank points out, a series of toll roads across the state would allow Maryland to rebuild its depleted highway trust funds, which would "free up money for local projects like Route 40 and Robinwood."

Shank says he's undecided about the toll proposal, and in the interest of giving the state a fair hearing, I'll try to be too. But yikes, for all the millions in gas taxes Western Maryland has sent to Annapolis over the years, you would think one major project every quarter-century wouldn't be too much to ask without this "no tolls, no roads" threat. At least to Democrats it will be a &threat;" to Republicans it will be a "choice."

As for the casino, I have to admit that my moral opposition to the state-sanctioned robbing of money from poor people is waning, as is my lust for fighting losing battles of any kind.

I do tend to agree with Busch on one point: If the state is going to sanction the gambling, the state ought to get the money.

Also, Senate President Mike Miller has an interesting take on gambling, which he related to The Washington Post this week: "Before we're out of politics, every single state in the union is going to have slot machines. The entire Bible Belt is going to have slot machines, whether you like it or not. Then there's going to be a time when it's saturated and they're out of existence."

More gambling leads to less gambling? Flip as it sounds, Miller may have a very serious point. Nothing kills a novelty like its ceasing to be novel.

There's still an air of excitement that accompanies boarding a bus and heading to Atlantic City, or for that matter, Charles Town. It's an event. When something's in your back yard, you tend to take it for granted and pretty soon you all but forget it's even there.

I can see it now. Casinos will begin to struggle. Then to lose money. Then instead of being cash cows, the state will have to spend money to subsidize and prop up our historic casinos, which we will want to preserve since they are such a source of our tradition and heritage.

Still, there's something weird about building casinos at every ingress to West Virginia and Delaware, much like settlers build a series of stockades against the Indians.

And speaking of Indians, I'm not certain it's the image the Free State wants to project, where it looks to everyone driving across the Potomac River as if they're entering Mohawk Nation.

But in the end, I am willing to surrender my opposition to Harrah's on the Potomac under one condition: That the state uses the profits to widen I-81 so we won't have to suffer those stupid toll booths.

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