By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said Wednesday she would increase Metrorail funding and include Southern Maryland commuter trains and the Inter-county Connector in the state’s transportation plan if she is elected governor.
Townsend is locked in a tight race against U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich, R- Timonium. Ehrlich has not released a transportation plan, although he is strongly supportive of building the ICC.
Townsend’s five-point transportation plan includes $20 million for new Red and Green Line Metro cars, $10 million to study Metro use of the new Wilson Bridge and $6 million to restart an environmental study of the ICC, which would connect Interstates 270 and 95 between Gaithersburg and Laurel.
The budget also retains $12 million already budgeted to study the proposed Purple Line which, under the “inner” proposal Townsend supports, would connect New Carrollton to Bethesda, and a possible commuter rail line between Waldorf and Prince George’s County.
The Wilson Bridge study would examine the environmental impact of a possible Purple Line between the Huntington Station in Northern Virginia and the Branch Avenue station in Prince George’s County.
Supporting transportation is critical to the state’s economy, said Len Foxwell, Townsend’s spokesman.
“It’s been one of her top priorities in her campaign and it will be one of her top priorities as governor,” said Foxwell. “Across the state, congestion poses a direct threat to Maryland’s economy and quality of life.”
A transportation advocate says Townsend’s plan focuses too much on transit and the Washington suburbs and ignores other state needs.
“If you’re going to put all your money in one mode (of transportation), in one area of the state, it’s to the detriment of the entire state,” said Steven S. Lakin, president of Marylanders for Better Transportation. “It seems that this is a politically motivated proposal to curry favor in voter-rich Montgomery County.”
Ehrlich dismissed the plan as coming too late for Marylanders.
“Drivers have stared at signs saying `Study underway’ for years now,” said Ehrlich spokesman Shareese N. DeLeaver. “Transit and road construction has not been a priority the past eight years.”
Ehrlich supports the outer Purple Line proposal and possibly the inner line as well, DeLeaver said, but the candidate has no immediate plans to release a transportation plan.
Paying for Townsend’s new transportation projects may be difficult.
Budget projections show a $1.3 billion general fund deficit next year and Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari recently said Transportation Trust Fund, which is separate from the general fund and pays for all transportation projects, revenues must increase or the state may not be able to pay for budgeted projects.
Maryland may also be forced to pay for an additional $1 billion in unbudgeted expenses, including Sept. 11 security costs at Baltimore/Washington International Airport and Wilson Bridge project budget overruns.
Townsend also proposes transferring $79 million from the trust fund to pay for general fund needs. To pay for transportation projects, the state would issue an additional $78 million in transportation bonds.
Expected federal revenues, coupled with bond revenue, would provide enough money to fund the new projects, according to Townsend’s plan.
The state has the ability to issue more transportation bonds, said a state budget analyst who did not want to be named. Maryland caps debt at $1.5 billion, and current debt obligations are just over $1 billion.
Even though interest rates are favorable for issuing more bonds, the analyst said, it is usually better to pay for projects with funds already in the treasury.
Porcari has suggested a hike in the state’s gas tax, which last increased 10 years ago, and the title tax as possible ways to boost trust fund revenues.
A transportation plan for the Baltimore area will be released as soon as Townsend has had a chance to analyze a recent study of the city’s rail transit, Foxwell said. Townsend does support a rail line connecting Fells Point and Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.