Highway money now also helps beautify state, create fun places

May 18, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

The sign, "Your Highway Dollars at Work" could soon be showing up in some surprising places:

* A 55-acre portion of the former Grove Farm near Sharpsburg, which the state will buy to preserve the spot where President Abraham Lincoln visited Union General George B. McClellan at the Battle of Antietam.

* A former bank in Odenton, which will be renovated as a museum celebrating the local railroading heritage.

* A 10-mile path to be built around Baltimore-Washington International Airport for bikers and pedestrians, eventually allowing them to travel to the popular Baltimore and Annapolis Trail at Glen Burnie.

It's a curious agenda for the Maryland Department of Transportation, an agency that was once synonymous with cutting trees and paving meadows.

Since last year, the agency has committed more than $16 million toward projects centering on recreation, historic preservation and beautification.

It is a trend that has begun to sweep the nation as state highway agencies invest hundreds of millions of dollars in train museums and biking trails, archaeological digs and parkland.

The "greening" of transportation agencies was mandated by Congress in late 1991 with the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.

For the first time, states were required to spend a fixed portion of their share of federal highway funds on what the law calls "enhancements."

The act authorized $2.8 billion for enhancements out of a total of $151 billion for transportation projects over six years.

"People who think of highway programs as roads and bridges probably wouldn't think of this as something that their gas taxes are financing," said Frederick C. Skaer, chief of environmental programs for the Federal Highway Administration. "It's healthy for us in many respects."

A new sensitivity

The rationale was straightforward. Left to their own devices, states have too often failed to compensate for the destructive impact of transportation projects, particularly highway construction. By mandating conservation projects, the federal government has forced transportation agencies to develop a new sensitivity toward the concerns of grass-roots organizations like garden clubs, recreation councils and tourism groups.

"Historic preservation groups, for instance, have generally been

on the opposite side of the fence from us," said Mr. Skaer. "Now we get to sit on the same side."

Many states are just now coming to grips with the enhancement program. Less than 15 percent of the $771 million made available by the federal government so far has been committed to projects, Mr. Skaer said.

That has not been the case in Maryland, which was one of the first states to act. The state's plan to build a bike trail around

BWI Airport was the first enhancement project in the nation to qualify for federal funds, said a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.

The program was embraced by state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, who is a Civil War buff, avid outdoorsman and conservationist. The former Anne Arundel County executive was already serving as chairman of a statewide commission on "greenways," or linear parks, when he was named by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to the transportation post in December 1990.

"I wanted to develop a program early and test the limits of what the money could be used for -- before the federal government became hidebound by their rules," Mr. Lighthizer said. "This isn't economic development. It's about quality of life."

How funding will work

Under the formula that Maryland chose, the Transportation Department will pay for up to half the cost of eligible projects. Of that subsidy, 80 percent comes from the federal government and 20 percent from the state.

The remainder must come from a partner -- another state agency, a local jurisdiction, a nonprofit private organization, or some combination of those.

The renovation of the former Citizen's State Bank in Odenton is a typical project. The cost is projected at $137,195, with $55,000 coming from the enhancement program and $82,195 from the Odenton Heritage Society, a nonprofit group.

Constructed in 1917, the one-story, 900-square-foot cinder block building is little more than a dilapidated eyesore adjoining the Odenton Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) station. Heritage members want to turn it into a museum that would also serve coffee and doughnuts to morning commuters.

Without the government money, said Odenton Heritage Society president Sara Shoemaker, "we wouldn't be be able to pay for it."

"The enhancement money is vital," she said. "Look at the number of automobiles in this area and what they've done to the community. Look at the traffic in a little residential community. I think anything that enhances life here is great."

Neither the federal government nor the state requires that projects be related to transportation in all cases.

Mr. Lighthizer, who once taught a

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