- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2007

OCEAN CITY — Gov. Martin O’Malley yesterday called for a major new transportation-spending initiative to upgrade the state’s infrastructure in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse earlier this month.

Mr. O’Malley, speaking before the Maryland Association of Counties, said he will introduce the spending package in the next legislative session. He did not say how much he expects the transportation package to cost, nor did he identify a funding source.

“Our roads, our bridges, will not wait for the right political timing, the best gas price or the ideal fiscal environment,” Mr. O’Malley told the audience of state and county officials.

The governor likened the increased transportation spending to the cost previous generations paid to build the state’s roads and bridges and said he does not want to pass an infrastructure to future generations that is weaker than what his generation inherited.

“It wasn’t free back then; it required investment,” said Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat.

Mr. O’Malley also did not say whether he will propose to increase the state’s gas tax to pay for the initiative, but a spokesman for the governor said the gas tax is not the only way to raise money for transportation projects.

David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said it is “very encouraging to hear the governor’s very specific commitment to transportation funding.”

“Counties have tremendous transportation challenges. The bulk of the road mileage in the state — 80 percent — is on local roads,” he said.

Democratic leaders said they had not seen details of Mr. O’Malley’s transportation-funding plan and that the infrastructure problem still must be evaluated.

“The first thing people have to come to grips with is ‘What’s the need?’ ” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat. “There are people in the business community throwing around numbers anywhere from $400 [million] to $600 million” a year.

State budget leaders said the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota prompted the call for more spending on roads and bridges. Eleven persons died when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1 into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

“It’s not going to be an easy thing to do, not at a time when we’re seeing oil prices increase, gas prices increase,” said Delegate Norman H. Conway, Eastern Shore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Republican leaders said Mr. O’Malley should focus on fixing the $1.5 billion state budget deficit before introducing new spending.

“We’ve got a $1.5 billion deficit. Do you really want to do something else?” asked Senate Minority Whip Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican.

Mr. O’Malley also told local officials yesterday he will try to spare them any budget cuts, a softer stance than his position earlier in the summer when he said he would not cut local aid to balance the budget.

“He gave false hope” to county leaders, Mr. Kittleman said. “He basically said to them, you’re not going to get cut … . And frankly, all of us know that’s not true.”

Mr. O’Malley has gradually defined his budget solutions through the summer, saying he would like to increase corporate taxes and legalize slot machines. But he has not detailed how he would close the bulk of the deficit or what slots package he would support.

Instead, Mr. O’Malley focused his speech yesterday on improving work-force development through education and training initiatives, improving public safety through better communication among state and local law enforcement and emergency-response agencies, and increasing environmental sustainability through energy-usage reductions and land-use policy.

The lack of specific answers about the budget disappointed some.

“I thought he owed it to the counties to give a little bit of an idea of what he’s thinking,” Mr. Kittleman said.

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