Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday announced plans to speed up $88 million in highway construction projects to boost Maryland's economy, but aides said the plan could hinge on the legislature approving a nickel increase in the gasoline tax.
"If we advertise for bids now, these jobs can be out on the street as soon as the Department of Transportation has the money to fund them," Governor Schaefer said in a written statement. "We can put hundreds of Marylanders back to work immediately."
Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said his agency will immediately begin advertising 69 maintenance and repair projects for bid under the governor's proposal. He said all were already scheduled, with no new roads or bridges included.
"If everything works out, it could be a big boost for the construction industry," said Mr. Lighthizer. "Eighty-eight million dollars is a heckuva lot of jobs. It's a good start, I can tell you that."
But Mr. Lighthizer insisted the proposal comes with a caveat: it depends "entirely on what the legislature does with revenues during the session."
If the General Assembly approves Mr. Schaefer's proposal to increase the gas tax by a nickel, to 23.5 cents, the plan will definitely goes through. If not, the outcome is less certain, he said.
If the legislature tampers with other Transportation Trust Fund revenues -- such as reducing the amount the trust fund gets from corporate income taxes without replacing it -- the accelerated construction program will be scrapped, he said.
"Does it absolutely depend on the gas tax? Not necessarily," said Mr. Lighthizer. "But, clearly, if they take away the corporate tax, you can't fund it."
The federal government pays 80 percent of the cost of most highway projects. Even if the legislature rejects the gas tax, the Schaefer administration could go forward with the program under a federal provision that permits the state to defer paying its 20 percent share for up to two years.
Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, welcomed Mr. Schaefer's proposal as a "good way to get people back working."
House Ways and Means Chairman Tyras S. Athey was skeptical. While legislators would like to put highway contractors back to work, the governor "may be a little too optimistic about the chances for the gas tax," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said.
As for borrowing the matching funds from the federal government,"I don't like to see us doing anything that puts us into debt," he said.
Some legislators agreed that a gas-tax increase will be needed eventually if the state is to avoid losing out on an estimated $1.2 billion in federal matching funds. A more convincing incentive, they insisted, would be for Mr. Lighthizer to provide a definitive list of what projects a gas-tax increase would finance.
Representatives of the highway construction industry said the Schaefer proposal could create up to 1,700 jobs -- 1,000 in the construction business and 700 among suppliers and support industries.
"We would certainly welcome the movement of any projects at this point, particularly anything that can be advertised and opened this season," said Robert E. Latham, executive director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association.
Donald J. Dean, president of the Maryland Asphalt Paving Association, called the proposal "exciting" and a godsend for an industry that has laid off 40 percent of its work force in the last 12 months.
The 69 projects identified by the governor for the fast-track include improvements to Bellona Avenue between Ruxton Road and Charles Street, the resurfacing of the Baltimore Beltway from U.S. 40 to Milford Mill Road and paving portions of Eastern Avenue from Rolling Mill Road to the Beltway.