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All roads to Rocky Gap pass through our overcrowded roads

November 25, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

If Maryland wants to legalize slot machines, fine. If some of those machines are installed at the Rocky Gap resort near Cumberland, so much the better - that might be what it takes to turn the tide at the monetary sinkhole.

But if those two proposals come to pass, local lawmakers should be forceful in delivering this message to the rest of the state: Our Interstate highways, and our roads in general, can barely handle the traffic they have now, much less what they will have if a thousand people or so are driving through each day on their way to Rocky Gap.

No one around here needs a Thanksgiving weekend to be reminded of the fact that Interstates 70 and 81 routinely become mollassified on Friday and Sunday evenings.

Not the average weekday is any picnic. In the daily rush hours, the Interstates are always one fender-bender away from a four-mile backup.

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It's hard to see how slots at Rocky Gap won't seriously compound the problem. For the most part, players aren't going to be coming from the west, they'll hail from the eastern population centers that will run them smack through Washington County.

Without some sort of pledge from Annapolis that we will no longer be the Lost Dauphin of transportation, Washington County shouldn't give the slots proposal a single vote when it comes referendum time.

Plenty of slot players will stop for gas in Washington County, but as we've seen, the gas tax that we pay here will never be seen again, going instead to some subway or massive commuter highway in the metropolitan suburbs.

The state had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the financial equation for improvements to one measly intersection at Edgewood Drive that was giving gridlock a bad name.

Our local lawmakers were essentially - oh, what's a happier word for extortion - into voting for motor vehicle taxes they abhorred just to get the state to the table.

I go to sleep grinning over this potential scenario: The statewide slot referendum is agonizingly close, but it goes down in flames when a great majority of Washington County residents kick it in the teeth as payback for the state's inattention to our urgent transportation needs.

And unless you get your freak on pumping metal slugs into box, there is really no good reason to give the state what it wants.

If we don't approve slots they will have to raise taxes? I've got news for you bucko, they're going to spend up the gambling revenue, go right back into debt and wind up raising taxes anyway, so what's the difference?

The state lottery was supposed to insulate us from tax hikes. Well?

And even if you never set foot inside one of these new casinos, you will certainly feel their effects as Interstate traffic becomes ever slower.

The talk so far has centered on Interstate 81. West Virginia and Pennsylvania have taken steps toward widening this rather frightening truck route to three lanes, in contrast to our own General Assembly, which seems to view Western Maryland as Ohio's problem.

A decade or two hence, 81 will almost certainly resemble an hourglass, coming to a two-lane bind for a dozen miserable miles. We'll see how anxious the governor at the time will be to put his name on the welcome sign then. Welcome to Maryland, where we can't get our act together.

No one has mentioned the situation on I-70 much, probably because it's length through Maryland would necessitate a project of staggering costs.

But each year seems to bring more congestion and it's hard to think that major improvements won't be needed sooner rather than later. Well, sooner for the I-70 counties with political influence, later for us.

Parenthetically, I should note that there is another partial I-70 solution, one that was floated two decades ago by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, of all people.

His vision was to encourage businesses to locate out here in the hinterlands and then, essentially, run commuter trains in reverse - east to west every morning, instead of the opposite. That would not address the weekend flight from the cities, but it would ease weekday rush hours. But like all good ideas in Washington, it was never heard from again.

Meanwhile, as we wait to see whether America will catch up to the rest of the world where mass transit is concerned, about all we can do is rattle cages until someone hears.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich's cockamamie idea of tolls on I-81 was viewed locally as more insult than solution and was pretty indicative of how we're viewed by the rest of the state: You want it, you pay for it.

But now, for once, we may hold a few cards. In Charles Town, W.Va., voters rejected a casino-gambling proposal, not so much as a slap against vice, but as a protest that the locals weren't getting a large enough share of the pie. We can make a similar demand, using the ballot box as a hammer. Want us to vote for slots? Then give us roads.

As dishearteningly demonstrated, our current lawmakers are powerless to help. Through the years, we've voted out tough lawmakers - Cas Taylor, Paul Muldowney, Bruce Poole - who had a place at the table and would have been in a position to help. That's on us.

But in the upcoming slots vote, in some small, timid way, we have the chance to say we're slightly mad and we would appreciate it if they didn't make us take it anymore.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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