Transit expansion dominates conference

Cost, resistance called top hurdles

October 26, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

The need for an improved regional transportation network --including a significant expansion of rapid transit -- looms as perhaps the biggest challenge to the growth expected in Maryland's economy from realignment of the nation's military bases, state and county officials said yesterday.

Two issues stand in the way of improving the transportation system, officials at a regional conference in Ellicott City said: a cost that could run into the billions of dollars and public resistance to mass transit projects.

But David S. Iannucci, executive director of the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development, told the group of about 200 at Turf Valley Conference Center in Ellicott City that he senses a shift in that attitude.

"I've seen the mass transit issue move into different communities where you would not normally expect it," he said. "I think we're on the verge of a major consensus in the Baltimore metropolitan area that we are demanding and deserving of a world-class, first-class transportation system."

The symposium, which featured county and state officials, and representatives of the real estate industry, focused on ramifications of the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, a consolidation of the county's military bases, that will become effective in 2011.

Those changes are projected by economic development officials to bring 11,000 jobs to Fort Meade and the Aberdeen Proving Ground over the next decade.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said that when defense contractors, retail and other services expand to serve that growth, new jobs in Maryland could swell by 40,000 to 60,000.

The number of new jobs will be much larger than the number of people who move to Maryland because of BRAC, several officials said, since people already in the state may fill some of those new jobs.

"We're really talking about jobs, not necessarily people," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Anne Arundel County Office of Planning and Zoning. "Many of the residents already live here."

The population is projected to grow, and communities must be prepared, officials said.

Officials yesterday said that they do not expect an overall housing shortage, but acknowledged the need to provide homes to low- and middle-income earners.

"Everyone wants jobs, but not everyone wants residential growth," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.

The need could be met in part by permitting higher housing density in some areas, though she said that often is "a hard sell" to the public.

But transportation dominated the conference, as it had in other discussions about BRAC. Earlier this month, for example, a report by a transit alliance of the Greater Baltimore Committee urged an expansion of regional bus and rail lines.

Officials at yesterday's symposium said there is a "critical need" to expand the current system and to push for mass transit that could link the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

"Clearly, there are not enough dollars," McLaughlin said.

She wondered whether new or higher taxes will be needed to help finance transportation needs -- a sensitive topic, especially with the general election less than two weeks away.

"Politicians like to be elected and re-elected, and talk about taxes doesn't get you there," Melissaratos said.

He acknowledged, however, that "the hunger for transportation is greater than the current funds will allow ... We need to have a transportation vision."

Yesterday's conference was sponsored by the law firm of Miles & Stockbridge, in cooperation with the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.

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