State agency accused of pleading too poor Lawmakers say money is there for fund match.

May 29, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

Two key legislators have criticized the Maryland Department of Transportation for exaggerating its money problems to suggest that the state will lose more than $300 million in federal funds for highway and bridge projects this summer.

The department should be able to come up with enough money to save the federal funds, at least through July 1992, said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a frequent critic of the department.

"If they're telling me they can't find that amount of money, there is something wrong with the system," Mitchell told the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday in Annapolis.

The department's gloomy financial predictions have hurt the state, agreed Del. Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's, head of the House Appropriations Committee. "The Department of Transportation is getting to be a tremendous pain."

State transportation officials say that as much as $312 million in federal funds could be lost later this summer because the state does not have the $60 million in matching funds it will need in coming months and years to get federal money.

States must promise to pay from 10 to 25 percent of a project's cost to receive federal dollars, although they do not need to produce the cash until bills become due, said A. Por

ter Barrows, Maryland Division Administrator for the Federal Highway Administration.

The federal money would pay for improvements to U.S. 50, a bridge in Annapolis and other construction and maintenance projects.

Mitchell, an Eastern Shore Democrat, is skeptical of the state Transportation Department's claims. The department would have to spend one-third to one-half of the $60 million state match by mid-1992, said Mitchell, who has contacted federal highway officials.

Nonetheless, the department does not expect to have even that amount of money by then, said Deputy Transportation Secretary Stephen Zentz. "We'd have to borrow the money, [but] we're already borrowed to our capacity," he said.

State transportation revenues derived largely from title and gasoline taxes, have slumped as the reccession has caused people to delay car purchases

The Schaefer administration wants to shore up those declining revenues by raising gasoline taxes and motor vehicle fees-a proposal that lawmakers have resisted so so far.

By mid-August, federal highway officials must know if Maryland plans to take advantage of its offer of federal funds, said Barrows. If Maryland cannot go forward, the money could be given to other states.

Maryland must promise to contribute $14 million toward the upgrading of U.S. 50 to obtain $101 million in federal interstate funds. The funds would complete the segment between Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties as U.S. 50 becomes Interstate 595.

Also, the state would have to pledge $8 million toward the replacement of the old Severn River Bridge over Md. 450 in Annapolis to obtain $32.2 million in federal money.

If it passed up that money, Maryland would receive no guarantee of ever seeing the money again, particularly in the case of the I-595 funds, Barrows said.

Maryland also needs from $30 million to $40 million to get $179 million in other federal funds for use on various projects. If Maryland lost that money, it might take years for state officials to recover it, Barrows said.

Some legislators said they would consider raising fees or taxes at a special session during the summer or fall if transportation revenues continued to plummet. But several key legislators said the possibility now appears to be remote.

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