The state transportation secretary described his agency in an annualmeeting with Carroll officials as bent on saving money and complyingwith the public will -- even if it means deferring indefinitely virtually all major expansion projects statewide.
Department of Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer told the county commissioners,planners and several municipal mayors Thursday that if transportation taxes aren't increased, Carroll highway bypass projects won't be built, or even granted official approval in some cases. And even if thegasoline tax is increased, Carroll won't necessarily receive a portion of the benefits in the form of road projects, he said.
Though DOT officials received some compliments for their straightforward answers and recent work with the city of Westminster on a Main Street upgrade project, the tone of the session was dour.
After nearly a decade of increased spending on major projects, the agency'srevenue sources have plummeted, including the fuel tax, titling taxes on vehicle sales and federal aid.
DOT has reached its state-established debt limit, restricting its borrowing ability, and it could lose up to $1 billion in federal money over the next five years because the state lacks matching money.
Consequently, DOT plans to focusalmost exclusively through 1997 on "system preservation," such as maintaining existing roads, said agency officials.
About $1.7 billion worth of projects -- including $1.4 billion in highway projects -- have been deleted from DOT's five-year plan.
"We'll build a program that presumes no revenue increase at all," said Lighthizer, noting the agency's plans depend largely
upon decisions to be made duringthe upcoming General Assembly session.
The outlook frustrated Carroll officials who pleaded for more definitive answers about long-awaited projects, such as a Route 30 Hampstead bypass and a Route 140 Westminster bypass.
"If between this department and the state legislature, you don't have solutions, then the quality of life in this county and others will deteriorate," said County Planning Director Edmund R. Cueman. "The 'no action' alternative doesn't stop people from coming."
Cueman said he feared congestion on major roads in Carroll,compounded by continued growth, would become "so unacceptable" that "chaos" would result.
Several county and municipal officials told Lighthizer that Carroll residents are skeptical about supporting a gas tax increase because other jurisdictions seem to benefit more from the money.
Lighthizer responded that DOT bases its spending strictly upon transportation needs without regard to jurisdiction.
"We can't promise anything, anywhere," he said.
Commissioner Julia W. Gouge urged that the Hampstead bypass remain a top priority. No construction money has been earmarked for the 5.8-mile project, once tentatively scheduled for construction in 1992. Land acquisition also has been deferred while state officials try to work out environmental problems along the proposed route.
An 8.2-mile Westminster bypass still is in the planning stages.
The commissioners discussed putting up county money to receive federal matching dollars to speed up the land acquisition process for planned highway projects.
"It's an option," said Lighthizer, advising them to wait for General Assembly decisions.