Road-Building Roadblocks

May 17, 1991

Building a superhighway in Maryland is so difficult these days it may soon be placed on the endangered species list. Construction costs are breathtaking. Land acquisition costs are worse. Environmental restrictions add enormously to the delays and complexity. Communities are increasingly up in arms about any intrusions.

Given those roadblocks, it is not surprising that Maryland's transportation secretary, O. James Lighthizer, wants to shift his department's focus from highways to transit alternatives. Yet highway building cannot be ignored: Marylanders aren't about to trade in their cars tomorrow and head for the nearest light-rail station.

Maryland still needs to build cross-county roads that connect job sites in the suburbs with suburban bedroom communities. The state still has enormous work to do on existing roads -- adding lanes, resurfacing and introducing new safety features. It also has to come up with a plan to relieve congestion on the state's major thoroughfares. And with a projected increase of 440,000 more residents by the year 2000, Maryland has to start improving its highway network now to accommodate the added traffic.

At the same time, Mr. Lighthizer has to guide his department toward greater advocacy of other transit options, especially light-rail and commuter-rail lines. These offer promising potential -- especially given the annual 20-percent growth in commuter-rail ticket sales in recent years.

The sticking point for all these projects is the Maryland General Assembly. Because of legislative intransigence, Maryland could lose $220 million of federal highway aid this summer for repair, reconstruction and widening of interstate roads. That's in addition to another $550 million worth of road projects postponed for 18 months because the legislature refused to approve higher gas taxes or motor vehicle fees this spring.

The Assembly's failure to provide more revenue also means that expansion of light-rail and commuter-rail lines have been put on hold. In a massive show of indifference, legislators voted against new road-building and new mass-transit systems. Commuters' complaints were ignored.

This summer, the Assembly should reverse field and approve new transportation revenues. At the same time, Mr. Lighthizer must specify how the new money will be spent. We hope he stresses a major expansion of commuter-rail routes and light-rail lines, in addition to improving existing roads. And we hope legislators start to realize that Maryland cannot put its transportation plans on hold for a couple of years. That's the wrong message to send to the state's frustrated commuters.

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