Boater logjam getting fresh look

CANDUS THOMSON

October 07, 2007

With water making up two of its boundaries and a big tub separating its eastern and western shores, Maryland takes a back seat to no state when it comes to floating boats.

The state has about 7,700 miles of shoreline and contains 623 square miles of water, not counting the Chesapeake Bay -plenty of room for the more than 204,200 registered vessels and countless motorless sailboats, canoes and kayaks.

For a lot of people, all that water figured into the "quality of life" equation when they moved here. Flying over the bay on a summer day, paddling in the coastal bay behind Ocean City or standing on the bridge over Deep Creek Lake reveals an impressive armada of craft big and small.

But when it comes to getting all those vessels into the water, the Baltimore-Washington corridor feels more like landlocked Switzerland.

You only have to wander out to Sandy Point State Park on warm weekends to see the nautical gridlock that occurs when it seems like everyone tries to launch at once. It sort of looks like that chaotic scene in Jaws, when all the residents use anything that floats to try to claim the bounty on the great white shark.

When a big weekend is coming, the Web site tidalfish.com warns subscribers to get to Sandy Point two hours before sunrise.

Yet, for the past dozen years, the state officials who control and enhance boating opportunities and protect boaters have been scattered, making it hard for them to work in concert.

Those facts have not been lost on the leadership of the Department of Natural Resources, which has taken the dry-docked Office of Boating Services out of mothballs and given it a staff of 60.

"You look at a potential $2 billion part of Maryland's economy and you can see the importance of doing this," said Frank Dawson, the assistant secretary who oversees the revitalized entity. "We want to make it easier for someone to navigate the system and get on the water."

Dawson and Bob Gaudette, the director of boating services, acknowledge that access is high on their priority list.

"For example, Anne Arundel County has a large number of registered boats but the owners have to go elsewhere to launch because they only have Sandy Point and Truxton Park and the parking lots fill up too fast," Gaudette said. "We need additional access, especially for trailered boats."

Dawson said access gaps are being evaluated with the staff of Program Open Space, which has since 1969 acquired 320,000 acres, an area more than six times the size of Baltimore.

Both men anticipate the demand for recreational access will accelerate as the state and federal government work to complete the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the country's first all-water historic trail that allows users to retrace the explorer's route.

Attention to boating opportunities is coming from other areas as well.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill in May that created a 13-member task force consisting of lawmakers, state officials and representatives of the boating and tourism industries to recommend ways to improve and expand boating opportunities. Its preliminary report is due by Nov. 30.

In addition, Dawson said the 21-member Boating Act Advisory Committee has a full agenda of about a dozen issues to consider this year, ranging from safety concerns to petitions from waterfront communities.

Last month, the Anne Arundel County Council put its government on a parallel track, establishing a 16-member Maritime Industry Advisory Board.

Access has become a top priority of BoatUS and its members, said spokesman Scott Croft of BoatUS, the nation's largest recreational boating group.

The unspoken challenge in all of this is, as usual, paying for it. Understandably, Dawson and Gaudette weren't eager to go there. But, let's, anyway.

The Waterway Improvement Fund is the Sugar Daddy, providing $30 million annually for dredging, aids to navigation, public landings, boater education and the Clean Marina program. It also supports Natural Resources Police marine operations.

Recently, for example, DNR dipped into the fund for $1.15 million to help the City of Baltimore with the bill for the $3.4 million rebuilding of the Inner Harbor Marina, a 132-slip facility for resident and visiting boaters.

The fund is replenished by the one-time 5 percent excise tax on titled boats used primarily in Maryland and a minuscule slice of the state motor fuel tax.

It's hard to believe anyone will fiddle with the excise tax given the amount of effort going into getting people to buy boats.

But look at the gas tax. Just 0.3 percent of the first 18.5 cents of Maryland's 23.5 cent-per-gallon tax goes to the fund. Last year it amounted to about $1.72 million of the state's total take of $758 million.

"That's chump change in a boating-rich state like Maryland," Croft said.

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