Balto. Co. tumbles into fiscal pothole Tight budget prevents timely response to broad deterioration

April 14, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's infrastructure is crumbling: Alleys are deteriorating, sewers are blocked and water lines need cleaning. More than half the county's bridges have structural deficiencies -- making some off-limits to fire trucks. And about a third of the traffic signs and signals are rated in "poor or terrible" shape.

County officials have budgeted millions to make repairs, but "there isn't enough money in the entire state of Maryland" to meet all the needs, says Public Works Director Charles R. Olsen.

Even as the region's oldest suburban county tries to make up for years of neglect, it must provide new services for high-growth areas.

Homes on the east side have failing septic systems and need public sewer service. West side communities need sidewalks, curbs, gutters and street lights that never were installed.

And the growing White Marsh and Owings Mills areas need roads and services to continue attracting new businesses.

Over the next six years, the Planning Board has proposed a $1.1 billion capital budget; County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III is expected to make a similar request tomorrow.

And while Mr. Olsen is pleased with that budget, he says, "We're just trying to stanch the bleeding."

Baltimore County, which grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s with the postwar suburban exodus, is hitting middle age.

"In 10 years, 50 percent of the homes, streets, alleys will be more than 50 years old," Mr. Olsen says. "That's the design life for most of these components. Although the vast majority will exceed their design life, it also means we're living on borrowed time."

An evaluation of county facilities last fall details the problems: Twelve miles of alleys are rated "terrible," with potholes and loose stones so severe that they may be impassable for trash trucks and emergency vehicles; another 34 miles are rated "poor" and are treacherous for cars.

Curbs, gutters and sidewalks are nearing the end of their life expectancy.

More than half of the bridges have weight restrictions because of structural problems, and more bridges will have to be restricted unless the program for replacement and repair is accelerated.

Sewer stoppages are becoming more frequent.

About 120 miles of water lines need cleaning and lining.

To see the problems of older communities, Mary Auffarth needs only to look out her back door in Dundalk, where a yawning pothole is eating away at the alley.

"The worst part is the kids come home from school and play in that water, and it's green," she says.

"We got petitions and did everything," the 70-year-old widow says, recalling efforts to get repairs. She finally called Mr. Ruppersberger's office and was told her alley would be repaired -- in three years.

Dundalk Councilman Louis L. DePazzo is sympathetic. Some holes are so big the county Department of Environmental Protection "is going to declare them wetlands," he said.

"You feel like you could cry."

On the other side of the county in Pikesville, Arnold L. Solomon has been trying to get Church Lane in front of his house repaired for eight years. "It's been a mess for a long, long time."

Road crews finally are resurfacing his street. But the road needs to be rebuilt entirely and the county lacks the money, says Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, who represents the area.

"That's our daily struggle," he says. "We desperately need to take care of the infrastructure."

Through much of the mid-1980s, the county concentrated on building roads, sidewalks and utility lines in growth areas, neglecting repairs needed in the older communities. In the early 1990s, revenues were too depressed to make repairs.

Under Mr. Ruppersberger, the county has put additional money into repairs and maintenance in an effort to revive older neighborhoods. Last year, the County Council approved his request to double the amount of money for alley repairs to $5.4 million for the 1996 and 1997 fiscal years.

Property owners must pay for alley repairs, but the county does the work and gives homeowners 15 years to repay it, with no interest charge. Similarly, those who require new sewer hookups because of failing septic systems have 40 years to repay the county.

The Planning Board has recommended $16 million for alley repairs during fiscal years 1998 to 2002. That level of funding would allow the county to repair the alleys in terrible condition in a year or two and start work on those classified as poor.

The board also has recommended spending $28 million during the next six years to repair or replace 35 bridges and make minor repairs to others. Many of the 35 bridges slated for work are off-limits to heavy fire equipment and garbage trucks.

Roads generally are in better shape than bridges and alleys, but maintenance still lags.

In the 1980s, the county put no money into resurfacing rural roads and in the early 1990s, the asphalt road resurfacing was less than half of what it should have been, Mr. Olsen says.

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