Some In County Support Adding Toll Lanes To I-270

Political notebook

August 09, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

One might think that in the depths of a recession that has governments across the country slashing expenses and ordering layoffs and furloughs, a proposal for a $4.6 billion widening of Interstate 270 from Montgomery County to Frederick with four toll lanes would be dismissed out of hand by elected officials.

After all, construction on the $2.6 billion Inter-county Connector to link Montgomery and Prince George's counties is still unfinished. In Howard County, officials are still waiting for state funding to widen northbound Route 29 by one lane approaching Columbia, and there's no money to widen Route 32 from Clarksville to Interstate 70 either.

But the I-270 project isn't being universally rejected in Howard.

"I think it's an appropriate use of gas tax money," said Del. Warren E. Miller, a Republican whose district covers western Howard and Ellicott City.

"It's probably a good thing. It's a huge economic engine," agreed Del. Gail H. Bates, Miller's fellow Republican in Howard's District 9a. Both have maintained for years that the state's gasoline tax and registration fees charged motorists who use highways should not be used to support mass transit.

Montgomery officials fear that growing congestion along the I-270 corridor could eventually choke off economic growth in an area with lots of high-tech office complexes. The road carried 174,000 vehicles daily in 1998 and that is projected to grow to 247,000 by 2030, according to articles by The Baltimore Sun's transportation writer, Michael Dresser.

But environmentalists and transit advocates argue that any highway expansion merely encourages more suburban sprawl and produces more congestion over the long term.

"The only way to ultimately handle our transportation problems is with transit," said Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

State Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, senate majority leader and vice chairman of the Budget and Tax Committee, said there's simply not enough money to consider such an expensive project.

"They have so stretched the ability of the Department of Transportation that all that's going to be done for future years is maintenance," he said. "Every project is on hold. There's no new revenue."

Other Democrats also disagreed with Miller and Bates.

"I think it's so ill-timed that I don't know how they're going down that road right now," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat who sharply criticized the expense of building the ICC.

"We're not getting the revenues from the gas tax. It can't be seriously thought of," Turner said. Delegate Steven J. DeBoy Sr. agreed.

"We've got to take care of our fiscal problem right now," he said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat and big booster of mass transit, said she objects to the I-270 idea on two levels - expense and future transportation needs.

"We cannot say we want to be a transit-oriented state and keep widening our highways," she said.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, chairman of the Regional Transportation Board, said it makes more sense to focus on central Maryland, where upgrades in transit are being planned to help handle the influx of federal workers who are part of the BRAC process.

Proposing a project that merely widens a highway without providing other forms of transit is "myopic," Ulman said. "We need to enhance transportation in multiple modes," he said.

The Republicans say that building toll lanes would help pay costs, since the tolls could be used to pay off bonds, and much of the money and benefit would go to fast-growing Frederick County, not Montgomery. Other creative financing ideas are a possibility.

"You've got to look at the whole state," and the effect on the overall economy, Bates said.

Both she and Miller said they're not worried that such a project would kill the Route 32 widening they've long advocated. Miller said he can't see taking vehicle revenues to pay for "hybrid buses that run around empty."

Kasemeyer chafed at the suggestion of using vehicle revenues only for highways.

"How do you support mass transit?" he asked. There will always have to be some revenue source besides fares.

Dels. James E. Malone Jr. and Shane Pendergrass, both Democrats, said they knew too little about the I-270 idea to have an opinion yet.

Where did everybody go?

The recession's effect on attendance at the annual Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City is making a difference among Howard County officials, too.

Instead of a 19-member delegation like last year, only three county employees are going on the taxpayer's nickel this year, including Ulman. The county is also paying half the cost for health officer Dr. Peter Beilenson, who is technically a state employee.

Only County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, the council's designated representative to MACO, is even thinking about attending this year, and she said she's not sure about her plans.

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