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If I-81 tolls come, tell all they were Ehrlich's idea

January 13, 2004

You can tell a lot about an area's political clout by the way state government responds to its transportation needs.

When Montgomery County, Md., officials argued that they needed a new 18-mile road to connect Gaithersburg and Laurel, for only $1.5 billion, Gov. Robert Ehrlich promptly made it a top priority.

Heck, the governor is so committed to this project that he even risked making himself look silly recently, when he said that far from being the environmental disaster that some envision, the new road actually will benefit the environment.

But when the governor's focus shifts to Western Maryland, he's not quite so solicitous. Even though Interstate 81 only runs through Maryland for 12 miles, a member of Ehrlich's cabinet said last week that the only way it's going to get built is if it's a toll road.

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Without tolls, work on the project wouldn't start for 20 or 30 years, according to Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan.

Some members of Washington County's General Assembly delegation seemed to like that, since much of the traffic on I-81 comes from out of state.

But what about all those distribution centers that have located here? Is the state now going to repay them for their jobs and investment by slapping an unanticipated expense on every load that leaves their warehouses?

And what about the flow of traffic? One idea behind the concept of the interstate highway is a roadway on which traffic doesn't stop, but merges in and out as motorists leave the highway.

Isn't the idea of adding new lanes to keep traffic moving instead of slowing it up? What will happen if other states along the route decide to do the same?

To be fair, Ehrlich has promised to ask the federal government for $10.6 million for the project, but that's not 10 percent of what the project will cost.

Here's our proposal: Assuming the federal government will go along with putting toll booths on I-81, install them, but also put up billboards nearby reminding everyone that this was Ehrlich's solution to the problem.

As Washington County officials work hard to bring new people here, somebody needs to tell visitors, perhaps with billboards, that this toll was not something local folks wanted, but an idea the governor insisted on putting in place.

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