$90 million proposed for new light rail lines

Transit money stands out in flat spending plan

September 20, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The O'Malley administration is proposing an infusion of almost $90 million for engineering of two new transit systems — including Baltimore's east-west Red Line — as part of an otherwise flat $9.4 billion transportation spending plan for the next six years.

Unlike plans of the past two years, the 2011-2016 Consolidated Transportation Program is not a litany of recession-related deferrals of transportation expansion and maintenance projects.

"The great news is we didn't have to cut. That's what I'd like to shout from the rooftops," Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said Monday. She unveiled the draft version of the plan in Towson at the first of a series of meetings held annually across the state.

While the spending plan doesn't return Maryland to the heady days of three years ago, when it made plans for $10.6 billion in transportation funding, it does represent a modest rebound. Two years ago, with the recession cutting deeply into revenue, Maryland was forced to slash more than $2 billion in planned spending. Last year, it managed a modest increase to $9.1 billion, but only because of the federal stimulus program.

Swaim-Staley said that revenue from the state's leading sources of transportation dollars, which include the gas tax, vehicle registration fees and the titling tax, have stabilized in recent months. But she cautioned that the Transportation Trust Fund is hardly flush.

"We are still in some very choppy waters," she said.

Transportation officials pointed to the new spending on the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs as the highlight of the new plan. For preliminary engineering work, the plan calls for spending $41.5 million on the 14.5-mile Red Line from Woodlawn to Bayview, and $48 million on the 16-mile Purple Line between New Carrollton and Bethesda.

The allocation of state funding is expected to bring in federal matching funds of more than $225 million, transportation officials said.

Including the money for the transit lines represents a political statement by Gov. Martin O'Malley. His Republican challenger in the November election, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has said he would pull the plug on O'Malley's plan to build the two transit systems as light rail lines, arguing that the state does not have enough money for the projects.

Andy Barth, a spokesman for the Ehrlich campaign, criticized the decision to allocate the money for the transit lines.

"Building the Red and Purple lines would cost the taxpayers of Maryland at least $3.6 billion," Barth said. "Bob Ehrlich believes we need to fix what's broken now, and the MARC trains, plus Washington Metro's Red Line, certainly have plenty that needs fixing."

If Ehrlich were to win the election and rescind the plans, the proposed funding would not be wasted, because most of it is not scheduled to begin flowing until the 2013 and 2014 budget years.

Swaim-Staley said it is important for the state to put the money on the table at a time when the Federal Transit Administration will be evaluating competing projects from around the country.

"We just want to make sure we're in the game," she said. "We think we have good, strong projects and we want to be there at the head of the line."

Each year, Maryland prepares a new version of a six-year transportation spending plan showing additions, deletions and revisions since the previous year's outline. Each September, the Maryland Transportation Department releases a draft of the plan and starts a statewide tour so top officials can brief local leaders. After receiving comments from local officials and the public, the department submits a final version of the plan to the General Assembly.

At the Towson event, State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said his agency is making steady progress on two major Beltway projects: the replacement of the Charles Street and Liberty Road bridges. The projects are expected to be substantially completed by 2013.

Pedersen said that during the current budget year, the state will conduct engineering work and acquire rights of way to widen the Beltway from Security Boulevard to Interstate 95 to the south. Also in the plan is similar work on the Beltway segment from Interstate 83 to Interstate 95 north. Both segments, among the region's most congested roads, are expected to be upgraded eventually to eight lanes at a combined cost of more than $1 billion.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Projects under way in Baltimore County

Beltway: Complete engineering for widening from Security Boulevard to I-95 south.

Beltway: Complete engineering for widening between I-83 and I-95 north.

Interstate 795: Plan options for new interchange at Dolfield Boulevard.

Belair Road: Complete construction on replacement bridge for U.S. 1 over Little Gunpowder Falls.

MARC Halethorpe Station: Construction of improved platform.

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