Keeping Baltimore County -- or at least its roads, bridges, alleys and underground pipes -- from falling apart is the task of a new infrastructure committee.
Jobs like relining old sewer pipes may lack the glamour of shiny new projects in the eyes of politicians looking for bragging rights, but they have to be paid for just the same -- and money is tight.
"People don't see maintenance," said the county budget director, Fred Homan, as the committee held its first meeting last week and looked at competing needs -- and the problem of too little money to pay for them all.
Reconstruction of the old drawbridge that carries Dundalk's Peninsula Expressway over Bear Creek alone will cost $6 million of the county's $10 million in federal bridge replacement funds -- this at a time when 204 of the county's 382 bridges are posted with weight restrictions because of structural problems.
The county doesn't have enough money to build the schools and classroom additions needed to accommodate projected annual enrollment increases of 3,000 students.
P. David Fields, the county's community conservation director, outlined the dilemma of whether to spend millions developing new commercial and residential areas like Owings Mills or on the needs of older Beltway communities.
"Should we spend $20 million on Red Run Boulevard," he said, or use that money to rebuild scores of deteriorating alleys, curbs and gutters in older neighborhoods?
The committee was created by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and the County Council to create a system of regular maintenance to prevent aging facilities from falling apart faster than the county can afford to fix them.
Over the next several months, officials will be making choices on what has to be done as they work on a bond referendum issue to be put before voters next year and a new two-year capital budget plan.
In the meantime, public works director Charles R. "Bob" Olsen said, the overall infrastructure -- roads, bridges, curbs, gutters and underground pipes -- "is in pretty good shape." He presented a report on the county's facilities to the committee headed by county administrative officer Merreen E. Kelly.
Mr. Olsen plans to work on a follow-up report for November listing priorities for various kinds of maintenance. That list will be used to help decide how the county's limited tax dollars should be used.
Mr. Olsen said an infusion of money for road and alley repairs over the past two years left the county in better shape overall than he expected. But he warned that bridges, roads and sewers are aging rapidly, and each winter's snows and salting will only do more damage.
Without a regular maintenance system, the county easily could fall so far behind that even huge infusions of money won't be enough to recover. The report concluded that traffic signals and signs were the most neglected area, and one with the most potential for personal tragedy.