Big blue book lets you know where the money goes

Transportation plan isn't Stephen King, but still tells a story

September 26, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Atop my messy desk lies a thick book with a powder blue cover and the riveting title: "Consolidated Transportation Program Draft: 2011 State Report of Transportation FY 2011-2016."

No, it's not exactly great beach-side reading, which might be why the Maryland Department of Transportation releases each year's draft CTP in September, just as the secretary and top aides embark on their annual "road show" to the 23 counties and Baltimore city.

But if you're morbidly obsessed with transportation and where the money you paid in gas taxes, registration fees, titling taxes, tolls and other revenue-raisers is going, the book is a fascinating snapshot of how our state proposes to spend almost $9.4 billion on capital projects over the next six years.

Having covered transportation for many years, I've learned that the draft program is a rich vein to mine for news articles. If you've been reading The Baltimore Sun over the past 10 days, you've seen at least three articles generated by the book. This is No. 4.

The draft six-year program is, in effect, Maryland's transportation bible. Because of the long-term nature of transportation projects, the state doesn't prepare a yearly plan but a rolling plan covering six years. This one covers the period from July 1 — the start of fiscal 2011 — through June 30, 2016. (Here's wishing a warm day in the infernal regions to the clown who invented fiscal years.)

Anyway, the department takes the plan on the road and gathers feedback from local officials, legislators and others before coming back with a final version of the CTP for the General Assembly session that starts in January. There's no formal vote; it's more or less incorporated into the budget by consensus.

The plan lays out expenditures for the secretary's office and the six "modal agencies" under the department's umbrella: highways, airports, transit, ports, motor vehicles and toll facilities.

Of the tax-funded agencies within the department, the State Highway Administration takes by far the largest six-year share of capital spending: $4.3 billion of the $9.4 billion. Transit accounts for $2 billion, and $1.4 billion gets shipped off to D.C. to keep the trains and buses running to the suburbs. The port, airport and Motor Vehicle Administration all limp along with fewer than $1 billion.

The book doesn't have much of a plot, but there are some basic themes. One is that building and maintaining a transportation system is ungodly expensive. The other is that big projects move at a glacial pace.

Let's just take one big project that comes out of the budget of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which derives its revenues from tolls instead of taxes. It's the replacement of the Canton Viaduct, the elevated stretch of Interstate 895 between the Interstate 95 split and the Harbor Tunnel on the east side.

The narrative tells us the bridge deck on the structure hasn't been rehabilitated since 1985, is "nearing the end of its life cycle" and is "structurally deficient" — code words for "fix it quick before it falls faster than that bridge in Minnesota."

The book says this project will cost some $179 million, and only about $3 million has been spent so far. Until now, almost all the money has gone toward engineering, a process that will continue into 2014. Not until 2015 will the bucks start flowing into construction, with $103 million of the spending coming in 2017 and later. The authority is confident the viaduct can hold out that long.

Similar descriptions are scattered throughout the authority's section of the document — an indication that the infrastructure built during the 1930s and the postwar boom decades is wearing out at the same time.

For example: The bridge decks of I-95 between the Fort McHenry Tunnel and I-895 "have not been resurfaced since their opening in 1976." The $40 million rehab is under way and will be finished by mid-2012. The Key Bridge has "wear on the approach spans and fascia beams" and fixing it has been deemed "a high priority project" and moved forward a year. Cost: $15 million through 2014.

Those are just a few of many. Now you know why tolls are projected to go up next year — whoever is elected governor in November.

That doesn't mean the election won't have consequences. Gov. Martin O'Malley put $90 million in the CTP for engineering of the Red Line and Purple Line transit projects in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs. If former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. takes back his old job, you can look for that spending to be rescinded in the next draft..

One issue raised in the campaign so far has been funding of the MARC commuter trains. The book suggests that MARC's problems aren't a result of being starved for funds. Among other projects, MARC is spending $114 million to overhaul and replace rail cars, $123 million to do the same with locomotives, and $110 million to expand the system. That ain't chump change — even for the CTP.

Anybody who wants to wonk out on such numbers can download a copy at mdot.maryland.gov/Planning/CTP/Index.html. (A loud razzberry to the department website for making the draft almost impossible to find.)

If you get your hands on the big blue book, enjoy the reading. Here's a preview: There are a lot more projects that make you question why they haven't been done already than there are ones that make you wonder why they are being done at all.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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