Fast-paced days of road building come to an end

May 12, 1991|By Doug Birch

Major highway construction projects may become all but extinct in Maryland over the next decade, officials say, as building roads becomes more expensive, land more scarce, communities less eager for growth, and environmental rules more costly.

State road projects are caught in a short-term crunch. More than $775 million worth of state and federal highway construction projects are frozen through 1992, following the General Assembly's decision not to raise new revenue through higher gasoline taxes or motor vehicle fees.

But even if lawmakers agree to begin pumping more money into the transportation trust fund in the coming year, few expect to see a high-powered highway construction program come screaming up the on-ramp. Top state officials predict that new construction in the 1990s probably won't match the fuel-injected pace of the mid-1980s.

"That era is just about over," said state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer. And Mr. Lighthizer, an advocate of mass transit, is ready to bid it a fond farewell.

"Probably in the long run it's a good thing," he said. "I don't subscribe to the theory that we ought to pave over the state of Maryland."

"In the past there was tremendous support for major road projects, including the National Freeway in Western Maryland and the new Kent Narrows bridge," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of the House subcommittee on transportation spending.

"Today, except in Montgomery County, there is much less of a groundswell statewide," he said.

"I have more people beating on me for sound barriers on the Beltway than asking for new road projects. . . . I think the mood in the General Assembly is clearly to look at alternatives to the automobile."

Delegate Maloney also said there was less political pressure for new road construction money during the 1991 legislative session than in previous years.

Because of the slowdown in housing sales and construction, developers were not pleading for new pavement.

Only two major new highway projects are in the planning process at the State Highway Administration. One is the Intercounty Connector, a proposed 6.5-mile freeway between Route 28 north of Rockville and U.S. 29. The other is the Washington Bypass, a highway proposed for various routes between Virginia and Maryland that is supposed to outflank the chronically congested Capital Beltway.

"Even under the rosiest funding scenarios, I don't think they are going to happen in this decade," Delegate Maloney said.

One reason is that new road construction is getting too expensive. The cost of land has risen sharply over the decade, and federal and state environmental rules require spending large sums to avoid damaging or to replace fragile swamps, bogs and seasonally flooded areas known as wetlands.

Also, roads just aren't as popular with voters as they once were, officials say.

Even in Montgomery County, where rapid growth and chronic gridlock have communities clamoring for new roads, some residents harbor doubts -- especially when the right of way is through their backyards.

A group called the Route 28 Community Alliance has been sparring with the SHA over its long-standing plans to expand five miles of Route 28 northwest of Rockville from two to six lanes.

"We didn't feel that a mini-I-270 was appropriate to serve a bunch of neighborhoods," said Gigi Godwin, a spokesman for the alliance.

The alliance has enlisted the aid of elected officials in trying to pressure the SHA to scale back the road to four lanes with a narrow median strip. In any case, the Route 28 project is not moving forward soon: It is one of $454 million in state highway projects frozen until at least July 1992, barring an interim increase in transportation taxes.

Maryland also could see $220 million worth of federal interstate highway projects slip through its fingers if it can't find matching money -- typically 10 percent to 25 percent of a project's cost -- by Oct. 1.

Robert E. Latham, executive director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association, does not buy the notion that roads are unpopular.

"There is an anti-growth mentality among some people in Maryland," he conceded. But the $1.5 billion gasoline tax measure failed, he said, because voters saw that only a small portion was designated for highway construction. Too much of the new money, he said, was slated for mass transit and other uses.

New highways will be needed, he said, to cope with almost 440,000 new state residents expected by the year 2000. Changing commuting patterns also would make it hard to replace the auto with mass transit.

Commuters no longer travel between bedroom suburbs and downtown offices, he said. "That's a big hurdle," he said. "How do you move people from their office in Odenton to their house in Arnold over fixed rail mass transit?"

Mr. Lighthizer said commuters can be lured to "an integrated transit system." How? "You make it go where people want to go."

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