- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — With the Ehrlich administration about to undertake a top-to-bottom review of Maryland’s transportation system, one certainty is that there will be a new emphasis on highway construction.

“Ninety-five percent of trips are by way of private automobile,” said Robert Flanagan, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s transportation secretary. “Under those circumstances, it is very foolish to ignore the needs of our highway system. The last administration totally ignored the important role of highways. This governor is going to be focused on an appropriate highway program.”

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a nationally known advocate of smart-growth policies designed to reduce sprawling development, was a strong proponent of mass transit. The Democratic governor halted planning for the Intercounty Connector (ICC), while espousing construction of Metrorail’s proposed Purple Line, double-tracking of the Baltimore light-rail system and improved bus service in rural areas.

Mr. Ehrlich, preparing for a shift in focus, created a transportation task force last month and asked it to report back by fall on how the state can find money to build highways while paying the operating costs of mass-transit systems, ports and airports.

Paul Schurick, Mr. Ehrlich’s communications director, said the task force will be asked to look at all possible funding sources, including a gasoline-tax increase, increased tolls and a new revenue source for mass transit.

“Maryland has two expensive mass-transit systems to subsidize,” he said. “Over the years, there has been less and less money to go to the highway program.”

If no action is taken, mass transit will consume an increasing share of the state’s transportation budget, Mr. Schurick said.

Mr. Flanagan said the Republican administration is considering adding several expensive highway projects to the transportation plan.

Mr. Ehrlich promised during the campaign last year that he would support the ICC, which would link Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County. It is a priority for the governor.

Mr. Flanagan said the administration also wants to begin planning for adding lanes to the I-95 corridor north of Baltimore, an expansion of the Capital Beltway and the widening of U.S. 113 and Maryland 404 on the Eastern Shore.

Environmentalists are worried about the shift in focus from mass transit to highways. They argue that more highways would encourage more driving and more sprawl, adding to the state’s serious air-pollution problems.

“We shouldn’t shift away from mass transit to sink all of our dollars into roads,” said Sue Brown, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. “That’s not going to be the right solution for Maryland. Mass transit is an investment in the future of Maryland. For so many years, transit was underfunded.”

Susan Stroud Davies, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, welcomes the Ehrlich administration’s change in focus.

“We think there have been some real deficiencies in terms of meeting our road needs,” she said. “They’ve gone begging because of the emphasis of the prior administration on mass transit. Despite all the new funding that was directed to mass transit, we don’t see any big gains in ridership.”

Mass-transit systems that operate on rail lines “are not responsive to market trends as far as housing is concerned, where jobs are and the general lifestyle of the Maryland public,” Miss Davies said.

Mr. Flanagan said that under the current structure of the transportation fund, Maryland will run out of money for highway construction within two years.

“The highway-construction program will have to cease. Serious bottlenecks will get even more congested, and we’ll be powerless to address the problem,” he said.

Part of the problem is a shortage of money in the state’s transportation trust fund. Mr. Glendening refused during his eight years as governor to consider increasing the gas tax, a major source of funding for transportation projects.

That is compounded by the fact that Maryland supports two major subway, rail and bus transit systems, one in the Baltimore region and one in the Washington suburbs. Fares pay about 40 percent of the operating costs, with the rest being subsidized from other transportation revenues.

In the six-year transportation plan, beginning with 2003 and extending through 2008, 33.9 percent of the money is designated for building and maintaining highways, less than the 38.4 percent for the two mass-transit systems.

“When we took office, we had a lot of desperately needed highway projects that were unfunded or hadn’t even begun to be studied,” Mr. Flanagan said.

He said the administration will not abandon mass transit in favor of highways.

“At the end of the day, I’m confident the administration will have a transportation program that is balanced,” he said.

One option will be to expand bus service, using bigger buses, sometimes called “bus rapid transit,” that are designed to look more like subway cars so they will have more appeal to potential riders.

The department is considering various ideas to speed the movement of such buses through traffic, including bus lanes on some highways and lanes at busy intersections so buses wouldn’t get caught behind lines of vehicles waiting for a light to change.

“Bus rapid transit creates flexibility and allows you to provide transportation to people immediately or in a much shorter time frame” than building new rail transit, Mr. Flanagan said. “I would rather concentrate on getting something to people as soon as possible, rather than building a Taj Mahal that people won’t see until after I retire.”

Restarting the highway-construction program will be a slow process because of the time needed to conduct studies on the environmental effects, complete plans and come up with the funding, Mr. Flanagan said.

“Our highway-construction program is like a giant ocean liner. It is dead in the water,” he said. “The captain can order full steam ahead, but it takes a long time for that ocean liner to get its speed up.”

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