Pricey road projects feel the squeeze

But big-ticket transportation plans remain top priorities

Friday, July 13, 2007

Southern Maryland officials are remaining steadfast in pushing two costly transportation projects that will have a tough time winning state funds in the face of a $1.5 billion structural deficit.

The Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland last month established the U.S. 301 bypass in Waldorf and a second span of the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge as its top road priorities. Both projects are expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

But even as state leaders grapple with the massive shortfall between revenues and expenditures for the fiscal year that begins next July 1, officials say it’s prudent to continue making a strong pitch for its infrastructure needs.

‘‘The county or area that doesn’t have an aggressive plan is going to lose out because it takes years to get the funding, and the administration needs to know the priorities,” said Sen. Thomas ‘‘Mac” Middleton (D-Charles).

The Transportation Trust Fund is currently depleted, but there’s talk of increasing the motor fuel tax to replenish the treasury and provide state aid for much-needed road projects. Earlier this year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) proposed raising the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon, which would have pumped more than $400 million into state coffers.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s fiscal 2009 budget has not yet been developed, and it’s unclear how much money will be available for transportation projects.

Council members say setting regional priorities makes for a stronger sales pitch.

‘‘It’s the state’s responsibility to say, ‘We recognize your priorities; unfortunately, we’re tight on money,’” said St. Mary’s County Commissioner Lawrence D. Jarboe (R), who serves as council president.

Although the budget uncertainty muddies the transportation funding outlook, the council’s executive director, Wayne E. Clark, is optimistic that the pace of growth in the region demonstrates a strong need for state aid.

‘‘The future of Southern Maryland is going to depend on its transportation, and those corridors are going to have to be enhanced,” he said of the Waldorf bypass and bridge addition. Calvert County’s growth plan is tied to its road capacity, Clark added.

The council’s two other transportation priorities are upgrading interchanges along the Routes 2⁄4 corridor in Calvert and a comprehensive study of transit in Southern Maryland, including bus and rail options.

While the overall price tags for the Waldorf bypass and Thomas Johnson bridge expansion are steep, funding is acquired in stages, so it’s logical to prioritize those projects now, Clark said.

Local officeholders acknowledge the big-ticket items won’t get substantial funds in the current fiscal climate, so they’re keeping expectations within reason.

‘‘With the sheer number of projects that are out there that the state is dealing with, and with the small amount of revenue [available], it’s going to be baby steps,” said St. Mary’s County Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D).

That means pushing for planning or design funds that are more attainable. Construction is a distant prospect, Mattingly said.

The long-stalled Waldorf bypass has been a Charles County priority for several decades, but its progress has been hampered by environmental concerns and lack of cooperation from Prince George’s County. Another environmental review of its proposed path is ongoing. Officials say it would help attract businesses, eliminate gridlock and serve as an evacuation route out of Washington, D.C., in an emergency.

More recently, officials in St. Mary’s and Calvert have appealed for a second crossing of the 30-year-old Thomas Johnson Bridge, which is critical to economic development for both counties. It’s also key to the long-term stability of the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles) that would have required funding for a second span has failed each of the last three years. Fiscal analysts estimate it would cost about $275 million and take more than a decade to complete. Former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last year dedicated $1.5 million toward project planning costs in the final weeks of the gubernatorial campaign.

Until O’Malley submits his budget proposal in January, it’s unknown how much transportation money will be available and whether any will be directed to Southern Maryland, said Jack Cahalan, a Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman.

Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari has been traveling around the state and meeting with local officials to understand their needs firsthand, Cahalan said.

Each jurisdiction or region must submit a list of priorities to the state agency, which helps determine how funds are allocated. Consensus among the three Southern Maryland counties could pay dividends.

‘‘If there is not consensus ... history will show you that projects will go nowhere,” Cahalan said. ‘‘When you do have consensus, the prospects are better.”

But he warned that there are no guarantees with transportation dollars in high demand statewide. ‘‘Some counties have walked up to us with literally billions of dollars worth of projects on [their] list.”

Another pressure is to finance road projects related to anticipated growth at military bases in Anne Arundel and Harford counties. Many of those initiatives are already in the pipeline, and Cahalan said the state won’t neglect projects not related to the base realignment and closure process.

‘‘Clearly, the secretary understands all 24 jurisdictions have needs, and you cannot focus purely on those jurisdictions that perhaps have a BRAC need, however large that may be, and turn a deaf ear to the other jurisdictions. We won’t do that.”

And that gives Clark reason to be sanguine.

‘‘[They] have broadened BRAC to not just include the new jobs ... but to include the sustainability of all military-related jobs in Maryland,” he said. ‘‘That means they’re taking a holistic approach that BRAC is every day.”

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