State road funds wither

Budget problems threaten plans for BRAC upgrades

September 23, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

A week after Gov. Martin O'Malley came to Harford County and promised residents they would not have to endure increased traffic without new roads and improvements to existing highways, state transportation officials brought sobering news on transportation projects during an annual visit to Bel Air.

John D. Porcari, state transportation secretary, said the state budget crisis is impeding new projects and a 10-year-old backlog of unfunded road improvements statewide has reached $40 billion.

Given the effect of inflation on construction costs, the transportation budget must increase by at least $400 million annually to meet its needs, he said. The state is coping with a budget deficit that could reach $1.7 billion.

"The road system is older, larger and more expensive to maintain, with more money going to maintenance than to new projects," Porcari said Thursday during the meeting with county officials and legislators.

But he acknowledged Harford's need for more roads and wider highways, given growth pressures and the significant expansion expected at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is part of the nationwide military base realignment known as BRAC. Thousands of new jobs and residents are expected to arrive in the area within the next four years.

"The overall needs of the state are great and especially acute here given the growth and BRAC," Porcari said.

During a Sept. 13 visit to the county, the governor said, "There will not be thousands of new students without construction money or more traffic without roads."

A recent demographic study predicted Harford would receive as much of 70 percent of the new residents relocating to Maryland as a result of the APG expansion.

"The money is just not there for road construction," said Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican who leads Harford's delegation. "We have a potential for 60,000 more people on our roads and no money to improve them. We will be in a holding pattern for a long time, even with BRAC."

Harford officials have made planning, design and construction funds for improvements on access roads to APG the top priority for state funding. But with the average cost of a new interchange at $115 million, state officials made no promises.

Federal transportation dollars are quickly drying up, too, Porcari said.

"The federal transportation fund is scheduled to run dry by 2009," he said. "We need to make provisions without federal money."

County Executive David R. Craig said the news came as no surprise - Porcari had delivered the same message to officials at the Maryland Association of Counties meeting in August.

"State money will go to keep the system going, and there probably won't be any new projects," Craig said.

He said most of the roads that lead to APG are state roads, and the responsibility for securing funding for those lies with the delegation.

Mass transit upgrades and expansions might allay the projected traffic congestion, particularly on the Interstate 95 corridor, Porcari said.

"We have an ambitious vision for the MARC [train] service in response to BRAC," he said. "Mass transit is one way to preserve Central Maryland, where 90 percent of the state population lives."

MTA's share of the state's $13 billion transportation trust fund is about $1.4 billion. Additional revenue, possibly through an increase in the gas tax, could be used to finance capital improvements, officials said.

Plans are moving forward for the $2.6 million Maryland Rail Commuter Service station in Edgewood. The unmanned facility is expected to open by 2010, said Diane H. Ratcliff, acting director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration.

"We are clearing the site and making it ready for construction," she said. "It is funded and well under way."

MTA also has begun a feasibility study for a so-called multimodal station in Aberdeen, which would serve trains, buses and cars. The agency is considering additional trains and routes and more buses for the area and has met with Army officials about commuter service on APG.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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