Duncan, Ehrlich in traffic gridlock

`Go Montgomery!' plan stymied by lack of funds

Executive wants gas tax increase

April 21, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - Nothing attracts a politician's notice like voter anger, and there is plenty being vented by the commuter-warriors inching along Montgomery County's clogged roads each day.

Motorists' exasperation is why County Executive Douglas M. Duncan championed an "End Gridlock" campaign slate in November, helping elect council members who back his $10 billion "Go Montgomery!" roads and transit improvement plan.

So now Duncan, a Democrat, has a council willing to implement most of the proposal, but he says Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hoodwinked him by seeming to support it, then withholding necessary funding after the election campaign ended.

Enduring his own form of road rage, Duncan has been raising the volume lately against Ehrlich in an early showdown of two men - potential gubernatorial rivals in 2006 - with divergent philosophies about how to fund public projects. While Ehrlich ran on a no-new-taxes pledge, Duncan, in his third term, says constituents are willing to pay more so long as government addresses a real need. His plan relies on a combination of state, federal and county monies.

"Here's a guy who campaigned on transportation," Duncan says of Ehrlich, a Republican. "He told me several times what a great program `Go Montgomery!' was. But you can't say, `I support transportation, but I don't want to pay for it.' He's the most hostile governor to transportation that I think we've ever seen."

Duncan says Ehrlich has abandoned the state's most populous county by declining thus far to raise the gasoline tax even a nickel to pay for transportation improvements, diverting money from the state's transportation trust fund to solve general budget problems, and opposing a General Assembly-passed bill that would allow Montgomery to impose an added charge of $27 per year on residents' motor vehicle registration fees.

Ehrlich aides say there is only a slim chance the governor will sign the bill, which would raise about $18 million a year for Duncan's plan.

Robert L. Flanagan, Ehrlich's transportation secretary, calls it a "terrible" bill. Traffic slowdowns, Flanagan said in an interview, are a statewide problem and Montgomery leaders shouldn't "create a false promise that if they get their taxes raised, the problem will be solved for them. The inherent flaw in the proposal is that Montgomery County can't operate in isolation from the rest of the state."

But Nancy Floreen, a Democratic County Council member who ran on Duncan's slate, says, "I certainly think we should be allowed the opportunity to impose a vehicle registration fee upon ourselves. Montgomery is an economic engine for the state."

The role of politics

The flap notwithstanding, Ehrlich and Duncan need each other. Duncan must rely on Ehrlich's backing for pet projects, particularly the proposed Intercounty Connector to help alleviate east-west county traffic problems. And Ehrlich can't afford to alienate Duncan's heavily Democratic county, which accounted for more than one-sixth of all votes cast in the last gubernatorial race. Even though Ehrlich captured just 38 percent of Montgomery's vote, his 113,680 vote total here still ranked behind only Baltimore County's 170,920 and Anne Arundel County's 113,968.

"It is important that these two have a working relationship," said County Councilman Phil Andrews, a Democrat. "I hope that both Ehrlich and Duncan remember we've got more than three years to go before the next election, and it's much too early for people to be acting on that basis."

Ehrlich aides deny that he misled Duncan during the campaign. The governor expressed sympathy for ever-worsening congestion, said new roads must be built and refused to rule out increasing the state's 23.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax. But "I can tell you with absolute certainty that Bob Ehrlich hasn't ever uttered `Go' and `Montgomery' in the same sentence," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "Clearly, [Duncan] gauges success by raising taxes. Bob has a different gauge of success. He believes we can move forward on transportation in Montgomery County without raising taxes."

Duncan says tax increases are the only way to ease gridlock and properly support schools. In addition to the car surcharge, his fiscal 2004 budget proposes raising the local income tax from 2.95 percent to 3.2 percent and adding 3 cents to the local property tax rate.

The council has indicated that it probably will reject the property tax increase because so many county residents are seeing their assessments rise by double-digits in the still-hot suburban real estate market. Also, the governor and General Assembly produced a budget requiring a nickel increase in the state's portion of the property tax - making it politically difficult for Montgomery to pile on.

Duncan, 47, has called this "the most difficult budget" of his nine-year tenure.

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