Tea that's sweet and bland Transportation bill: More money, but no vision in Maryland on how to spend it.

March 13, 1998

THE LARGEST federal transportation funding program ever, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, is known by its acronym ISTEA. That's pronounced "iced tea," which in Washington gets served with great gobs of sweetener.

Questions that may, unfortunately, delay this legislation deep into May don't center on where the money comes from or why, but rather on how much and who gets it.

Thanks to some muscle applied by U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland would receive 1.58 percent of the outlay in the $214 billion Senate bill approved yesterday. That's better than the House version under consideration, which would grant Maryland 1.51 percent and includes not a dime for the deteriorating Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The state now gets 1.71 percent of transportation allocations. The difference may seem puny, but it's worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Though Maryland sits toward the bottom of the pile, it still expects roughly $500 million or more a year, up from $400 million a year now.

ISTEA dates to former President George Bush, which reminds us of what's conspicuously absent from this discussion in Maryland: the vision thing.

Even with this truckload of money, don't expect the Central Maryland Light Rail Line to be extended to White Marsh, Security Boulevard or Columbia for a decade or more. Although rush hour grows like ragweed, the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening hasn't given a lot of thought to mass transit or other commuter options. It isn't prepared now that money is on the way. This is "smart growth"?

Also, you can probably forget about an Intercounty Connector to link the state's hottest economic engine -- the high-tech corridor along Montgomery County's Interstate 270 -- to the Baltimore region. The governor has misgivings about the project he once supported, but offers no real alternatives.

Not that the state lacks for ways to use federal money. It has an estimated $900 million worth of catching up to do on the Baltimore and Washington beltways, and a crying need to double-track much of the light rail line where oncoming trains can't pass. But it's hard to get excited about a state program that has as a major highlight fixing city street signs.

The strenuous efforts to gain Maryland's fair share of transport hTC funds are grand. It's just a shame a fraction of that energy wasn't invested in planning imaginative ways to use it.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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