Growth, traffic are top concerns

Coming boom in military jobs is reflected in AACC survey of county residents

November 09, 2005|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

The issue of growth and transportation is the most important problem facing Anne Arundel, according to 36 percent of county residents surveyed in a poll released last week.

That was three times the number of residents in the Anne Arundel Community College poll who thought education was the county's biggest concern.

Also, 57 percent of the respondents to the poll said the county was moving in the right direction, up from 53 percent in the spring. And 71 percent said the county's economic condition was good or excellent.

But on the eve of the national military realignment becoming law - and the implications of an expected job boom at Fort Meade coming into focus - more than one-third of county residents polled between Oct. 24 and Oct. 27 said congestion and growth is the most important issue facing them. That number is up 8 percentage points from the spring.

After education (12 percent), residents listed taxes (10 percent) as their top concern. The poll surveyed 417 county residents at least 18 years old. The margin of error was 5 percent.

The increase on the congestion and development issue "implies we have had at least a momentary focus, sparked by the expansion at Fort Meade," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

But Nataf said increased traffic and longer commutes - caused by existing development - may also factor into the equation.

Several politicians gearing up for county and state races in 2006 agreed that transportation and growth will be the overriding priorities of their campaigns. They said the poll results shed clues on what issues will be at the top of their platforms.

"There's a strong concern about under-planning and overdevelopment in the county," said Del. John R. Leopold, a Republican running for county executive. "There's a strong concern about the county not matching growth with the infrastructure improvements."

Fort Meade expects to receive about 5,300 defense jobs through 2011 from the first military realignment in a decade. That doesn't include 7,500 people the National Security Agency is hiring through 2009. And those numbers do not include the tens of thousands of additional private-sector jobs that will be created by the influx of government workers.

More than 6,600 government workers are expected to come to Maryland during the next six years, spawning the arrival of as many as 60,000 residents to the state into the next decade, state officials said.

They said the arrival of these people will demand billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements.

Finding the revenue to keep up with that growth will be the most difficult challenge for whoever replaces Janet S. Owens as county executive next year, especially given the restraints of the revenue-tax cap, Democrats and Republicans said. (Owens, a Democrat, cannot run again because of term limits.)

The need to meet infrastructure demands and provide quality education won't leave a lot for spending on what former Annapolis Mayor Dennis M. Callahan, a likely Democratic candidate for county executive, calls "luxury items."

Phillip D. Bissett, a Republican who lost to Owens in 2002 and is running again for executive next year, said, "People don't mind being taxed - as long as they see a return on that investment."

County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat who is running for the House of Delegates next year, said many residents haven't grasped the implications of the military realignment at Fort Meade, or how the added costs of public services will affect taxes.

In anticipation of the Fort Meade job boom, the county has approved the construction of more than 4,000 housing units, along with about 5 million square feet of office space. Much of that construction is in western Anne Arundel County.

"If people want to keep their taxes down, they will need to study the issues closely," Beidle said.

Nataf, of AACC, said the development issue is a double-edged sword for political candidates. On one hand, he said, they will want to promote economic development and the positive side effects of jobs and greater tax revenue.

"But if you take the credit, you may be stuck with more transportation and traffic problems," he added.

The poll revealed that residents would support tax incentives and subsidies to expand public transportation and encourage fuel-efficient vehicles. For example, 70 percent said they would support increasing bus and light rail service, even at greater cost to taxpayers.

That statistic surprised Owens. She said that with the building of long-awaited Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole, more mass transit options must become available to keep Annapolis accessible.

"We need better access into Annapolis, more transportation that's fast, efficient and reliable," Owens said. "From West Street out to Parole, something has to give. We have to get people out of their cars."

Other poll findings:

President Bush's approval rating is 45 percent, with a disapproval rating of 48 percent. More than two-thirds of respondents (68.5 percent) labeled the war in Iraq as Bush's worst decision.

On terrorism, 39 percent of the respondents said that Anne Arundel County was at least somewhat likely to face an attack within the next year, and 53 percent said the county was at least "somewhat prepared" for a terrorism attack.

On spending, 45 percent said the county should return any surpluses to the taxpayers, and 47 percent said Anne Arundel should spend or keep the money.

The proposed state horse park at the former Naval Academy dairy farm in Gambrills was supported by 44 percent of the respondents, and opposed by 43 percent.

On the environment, 56 percent supported paying a $60 impact fee to correct the effects of storm water. phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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