Dodging roadblocks

The Brac Effect

March 18, 2007

To appreciate the challenge posed by the influx of 40,000 military-related jobs on highways and transit systems over the next several years, consider the note Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari was handed by an unnamed county executive not too long ago. It was a list of all the transportation improvements the county needed - and the state was expected to finance - to accommodate base realignment and closure (BRAC) growth. The price tag was a whopping $5 billion.

From Cecil to Montgomery counties, but especially around Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, the demand for transportation money is high. BRAC has suddenly become a buzzword linked to any transportation project ever thought of for Central Maryland. Small wonder. It's obvious that roads and transit systems - rail as well as bus - are going to have to be improved to accommodate the influx.

In some cases, adding capacity can be done with relatively modest changes - synchronizing traffic lights on U.S. 40, for instance, or purchasing additional MARC commuter rail cars. But others, such as expanding the capacity of Route 3, a major thoroughfare near Fort Meade, will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and must fit a long-term growth strategy.

Transportation planning can be a ponderous thing. It's not uncommon for a major project to be on the books for two decades before it's built. Factors from cost to environmental impact are scrutinized in detail, alternatives are considered, and the public is given an opportunity to offer comment. BRAC puts some unique stresses on this well-established system - but it also offers some unique opportunities.

Aberdeen and Fort Meade have plenty of transportation options. They are connected by major highways, including Interstate 95, and MARC, arguably the state's most efficient transit system. But these areas already struggle with growth issues, and the state does not have a decade to consider where to invest its transportation dollars. And, while on the subject of dollars, it should also be noted that Maryland's transportation trust fund does not have the money for any major initiatives. Despite Gov. Martin O'Malley's requests last week, the federal government is not likely to provide the bulk of it, either.

What's needed is for state and county authorities to quickly identify the most cost-effective transportation solutions and fast-track their development. Commuter bus lines that take passengers directly to defense facilities and expanded MARC service ought to play a significant role in that plan.

Fortunately, most (perhaps even all) of these projects are on the books. Now it will be up to Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who is coordinating BRAC planning, Mr. Porcari and other state and local officials to set the priorities and find consensus behind a means of financing them.

That's likely to tie most BRAC-related transportation projects to an increase in the gas tax, not necessarily an easy vote these days in Annapolis. But ultimately, such a public investment has too big a payoff to ignore. Maryland is acquiring the kind of well-paid, high-tech jobs that all states crave. Sparing these booming growth areas from traffic gridlock is smart economically, environmentally and politically.

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