- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2003

The deadlock on transportation priorities between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is headed for a showdown next month, with the governor prepared to reject a bill that would increase vehicle registration fees for the county's residents.
Mr. Ehrlich, who opposes raising taxes, has openly denounced the bill, which would require Montgomery County residents to pay an additional $27 vehicle fee every year to raise $16.7 million for county transportation projects in fiscal 2004.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor is likely to reject the bill during one of the two remaining bill-signing dates in May because it "sets the precedent for other jurisdictions around the state."
In response, Mr. Duncan, other public officials, transportation advocates and merchants have formed a coalition to persuade the governor to sign the bill.
"If your vision for Montgomery County is that you want more traffic congestion, you can veto the bill," said Mr. Duncan, whose $1 billion transportation initiative for the county, called Go Montgomery, relies on local, state and federal money.
Mr. Duncan also said Mr. Ehrlich has reneged on his campaign promises to resolve transportation issues. The county executive pointed out that to fill a gap in the state budget Mr. Ehrlich took $725 million from transportation projects $300 million from the transportation trust fund, $225 from local projects and $200 million that Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Mr. Ehrlich's predecessor, had earmarked for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Mr. Duncan said taking money out of the trust fund could jeopardize such Go Montgomery projects as the long-delayed Intercounty Connector joining Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg to Interstate 95 south of Laurel and the proposed Metro Purple Line from Tysons Corner to New Carrollton.
"We did agree on transportation during the campaign when he supported the Go Montgomery program," Mr. Duncan said. "The governor told me he supported it. He campaigned on reducing traffic congestion."
The Ehrlich administration, however, said the governor never supported Go Montgomery.
"Ask the county executive to show any transcript anywhere saying Governor Ehrlich supports Go Montgomery," Mr. Fawell said.
The spokesman added that the governor also had a $2 billion budget gap to fill this year, making it necessary for him to borrow from the transportation trust fund.
Mr. Duncan and Mr. Ehrlich also have clashed over the gasoline tax, with the former saying that the latter has done nothing to increase it. Mr. Ehrlich's aides said he has not ruled out such an increase but does not believe this is the time, given the high gasoline prices.
The Duncan-Ehrlich fight is seen by some as a prelude to the 2006 gubernatorial race.
Mr. Duncan, a three-time county executive who deferred to former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the race last year, is a likely candidate to run against Mr. Ehrlich.
Mr. Duncan appears to be laying the groundwork, using almost every opportunity to point out the governor's lapses.
When Mr. Ehrlich released his budget that borrows money from the transportation trust fund, Mr. Duncan said he was "devastated."
When the governor omitted all reference to transportation from his state of the state address, Mr. Duncan lashed out at him.
The Ehrlich administration also has been quick to point the finger at Mr. Duncan for supporting taxes during economic uncertainty. Besides endorsing the vehicle tax, he has proposed a 3 percent property tax increase and raising the income tax from 2.95 percent to 3.2 percent to fill a $321 million county budget deficit.
"These are two people with very different ideas," Mr. Fawell said.
Mr. Ehrlich's aides say that despite what detractors might say, the governor has been successful in transportation matters, including getting Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to fast track an environmental study of the Intercounty Connector.
"And he didn't raise anyone's taxes to do it," Mr. Fawell said.
Mr. Duncan's critics say his tax-increase proposals could hurt his political aspirations.
Steven Abrams, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee, said the many county residents who work for the federal government are open to taxes, but the rest of Maryland is not.
He said a Democrat in the next gubernatorial race would have to attract voters beyond the party's strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
But Mr. Duncan said he was not worrying about the rest of the state right now. "I am looking at Montgomery County now, and people here will pay more taxes if there is something they can get back in services," he said.
According to Mr. Duncan's plan, the tax increases also would give $75 million more this year to county public schools. Go Montgomery is a 10-year initiative that gives 47 percent of the funds to transit, 43 percent to road projects and 10 percent to hiker-biker trails and pedestrian and traffic safety.
Critics say the plan is too ambitious because 90 percent of the money comes from the state.
"It is one of those cases of the caboose trying to pull the engine. Mr. Duncan should be much smarter about trying to create a more concrete approach to fund his initiative," Mr. Abrams said.

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