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We're good on road maintenance, what we need is road planning

July 16, 2006

There's an old story about a ticket agent who, when asked, assured a customer that the trains always ran on time. When the train in question still hadn't pulled into the station 20 minutes after it was supposed to, the passenger asked the agent why he had been deceived.

"Son," the agent said softly, "I'm not paid to sit here and knock the railroad."

Neither is Washington County Public Works Director Gary Rohrer paid to knock the County Commissioners. So his statements about local roadways to a Chamber of Commerce gathering this week have to be considered in that light.

"Our Board of County Commissioners ha(s) been very, very attentive to our infrastructure," he said.

Yes, and I've been very, very attentive to the models in the Coors beer commercials, but that doesn't mean I've done much about it.

There is no real quibble in this quarter with Rohrer's statements, as far as they went. The county road crews seem to keep a majority of the roads in good shape a majority of the time, and the current commissioners have committed $25 million over the next five years for improvements.

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In fact, I would cheerfully put our roads up against those of any rural county in the nation.

But viewed in an historical sense, not just of this commission, but of past commissions, and not just of the county government but of all levels of government, the record is not as impressive.

There has been little thought, and less action, as to how the county will look in 20 years and where new and improved roadways will need to go to serve the population.

The Robinwood bypass became a debacle, laughable if it weren't so sad, in the '90s and nothing got done. We're still being assured that it will happen. Some day.

Just as some day we're going to build a southern bypass, unless we don't.

The Edgewood/Dual Highway intersection had to become a state-certified crisis before it got on anyone's to-do list.

This isn't a new phenomenon. In 1973, the state foresaw the need for a beltway on the northeast side of town connecting Md. 64 to the Frederick County line. But the project was deleted at the request of our own local lawmakers. How many of today's problems in the northeast quadrant might have been avoided without this county's maddeningly inability to pull the trigger?

The commissioners recently turned down a major subdivision on Sterling Road south of Hagerstown, in part because of inadequate roads.

Which begs the question, where in Washington County are the roads adequate for growth? Knowing growth is coming, shouldn't there be plans for targeting growth areas and then making certain the infrastructure is able to handle it when it arrives?

We know, from its new zoning maps, that the county frowns on subdivisions out in the country, preferring them to be built closer to existing towns. But then a developer submits a plan close to town and the commissioners don't want it there, either.

It is rather incongruous to say, we want growth to go "here." And then when someone tries to build "here" you say, oh you can't build here, because we're not prepared for it.

The developer offered to give the county land for a new school, but at least one commissioner thought the developer should not only give the land, but build the school, too.

Which begs a second question: The county now charges a tax of $13,000 and up for new homes, ostensibly to pay for the needs the development creates in terms of roads and schools.

Can a developer/homebuyer logically be asked to pay a weighty school-construction fee and then be asked to build the very school for which these taxes were supposed to have paid?

And just where is this construction-tax money going, if not to build schools and roads?

Rohrer correctly stated that much of our gasoline tax goes not to highways, but to prop up mass transit in the cities. While that is true, there needs to be some accountability on the part of our local lawmakers, who never seem to have the same success as other parts of the state in securing highway funds.

Local lawmakers are all too eager to take the commissioners to task for perceived inadequacies. It would be fair turnaround for the commissioners to haul our state lawmakers before the board to ask them publicly why they have been such failures on bringing home money for much-needed highway projects.

We have a state flush with cash, a Republican governor and Republican-majority lawmakers. If they can't do the job now, they never will be able to, and we should get rid of them and elect some people who can.

But money is only half the issue; planning is the other. And you almost get the sense that if the state showed up on our doorstep and said "Here's $1 billion, now what are you going to do with it?" there would be nervous looks all around, because no one's thought that far ahead.

Good highway policy requires two things: patching and projecting. We're OK on patching, or fixing existing infrastructure that is broken. But as the race for county office heats up, it would be nice to hear from people who can do a little projecting - namely, figuring out where the need is going to be, and addressing that need before, not after, it becomes a crisis.

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