Faced with increasing road needs, Howard County officials decided a decade ago that the state helps those who help themselves.
They attached an excise tax to building permits and have spent the subsequent years chipping in millions for road projects they weren't expected to spend a cent on -- state highways and byways in the county -- to propel the projects off waiting lists.
At least three other suburban counties are doing the same: paying for a quarter, half, even all of the cost of project planning, adding lanes or constructing interchanges on roads that are the responsibility of Maryland's state government.
It's a very unusual use of local dollars, said Tony Giancola, executive director of the National Association of County Engineers in Washington. And it's not without critics, from county transportation officials who say they're struggling to pay for their own road needs to residents who believe developers are the true beneficiaries.
James M. Irvin, Howard's public works director, offers concrete-and-asphalt reasons why he thinks the idea is good for his county: Route 32 in Columbia. U.S. 29 in Ellicott City and Columbia. Route 175 at Snowden River Parkway. U.S. 29 at Route 216. U.S. 29 at Johns Hopkins Road.
All were in need of widening or interchanges in 1992, when the excise tax was passed, and all have since been worked on because Howard committed $61.5 million to the efforts. The State Highway Administration is underfunded, Irvin contends, and fast-growing Howard couldn't afford to wait.
"There's such a backlog of needs across the state, it's unlikely that these projects would have been built -- even today -- if the county didn't step forward," he said.
Parker F. Williams, head of the State Highway Administration, said his agency has scheduled a record number of road projects to begin in the next six years. But he acknowledged that funding would never be sufficient for everything that people want to build.
He said he welcomes the local assistance.
"It helps, really, to be able to build more projects faster," Williams said.
Craig Forrest, manager of transportation planning for Baltimore County, which has spent millions not just on state highways but also on the central light rail line, said workers will start extending White Marsh Boulevard from U.S. 40 to Eastern Boulevard this summer instead of years from now because the county committed about $14 million toward the cost.
He agrees with Irvin that Maryland's transportation trust fund "is under a tremendous amount of stress." A new tax or other source of money is sorely needed, he said.
It's a symptom of the problem -- not a long-term solution -- that counties are footing the bill for some work, he added.
"You're only Band-Aiding the thing," Forrest said. "You're only doing a few projects here and there."
Carroll County has paid for project planning within its borders, while Prince George's County has funded road construction for years.
But in most Maryland counties, transportation officials can't imagine spending money on roads they're not required to maintain.
"I guess maybe we're patient," said W. Stephen Young, director of public works in Allegany County, adding in a more serious tone: "Frankly, we're probably not in a financial position to do that."
"My capital budget is only $8 million," said H. Hudson Myers III, deputy director of public works for Harford County.
Terry Carlson, the transportation bureau chief for Calvert County, said his jurisdiction can't offer to help with state road projects. "As a matter of fact, we're trying to get money from them to help us with some of ours," he said.
Terry McGee, chief engineer for Washington County, can understand why some counties pay for state road construction. He mentioned the Interstate 81 and Halfway Boulevard interchange outside Hagerstown: Work finished recently, but his county could have used the interchange a lot earlier.
"We were waiting for years and years and years and years for that to come on line," McGee said. "We always accuse the Howard counties and Montgomery counties and Prince George's counties of the world of grabbing up all the money. ... We feel like we get the short end of the stick quite regularly."
But he has reservations about counties taking control by handing over money instead of waiting.
"State Highway may begin to expect that participation from jurisdictions," McGee said. "I can tell you, from Washington County's perspective, we can't afford it."
Residents who fought plans for large developments in southern Howard County are more critical, contending that local officials are helping builders move more quickly by speeding up improvements to nearby highways.
Peter Oswald of Fulton, who unsuccessfully battled the Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms developments on Route 216, said the county shouldn't have offered to fund part of the expansion of that road. Work is expected to begin next fall.