ANNAPOLIS – The e-mail message from Gov.-elect Bob Ehrlich’s office to Caroline County resident H. George Jackson the day after the general election made things perfectly clear: “Dover Bridge, here we come!!!!!”
Replacing the 69-year-old swing span bridge, one of two routes connecting Talbot and Caroline counties across the Choptank River, is high on Ehrlich’s emerging transportation agenda, a combination of road and transit projects designed to spur the state’s economy – and repay political support.
Other top priorities, said Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell, include: building the Inter-county Connector, which would link Interstates 95 and 270 between Laurel and Gaithersburg; building Metrorail’s outer Purple Line; completing the new Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River in Prince George’s County; expanding MARC commuter rail service, and, possibly, building a Manchester-Hampstead bypass in Carroll County.
But it is the Dover Bridge replacement that pleases Jackson, who put an Ehrlich campaign sign in his yard because of the GOP candidate’s promise.
“Mr. Ehrlich drew 81 percent at our polling place,” he said. “You see how badly we want that bridge?”
The narrow bridge, which occasionally sticks open or closed, has been a frequent source of Eastern Shore traffic knots and frustration. Ambulances on their way to the nearest hospital in Easton have had to detour more than 20 miles because they could not cross the bridge.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening promised to fix the bridge in 1997 after Jackson led a letter-writing campaign, but the state rescinded the $1.6 million earmarked for the project.
Caroline County voters remembered the broken promise, Jackson said, and it hurt Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ehrlich’s Democratic opponent.
“It’s a bridge that we are in dire need of; it’s a safety issue,” he said.
Not everyone is as pleased as Jackson with the new administration’s plans.
Controlled growth and environmental groups are wary Ehrlich will choose road construction over transit. The Sierra Club, which gave a national environmental service award this year to Glendening, is unsure of its welcome with Ehrlich.
“I think on the ICC . . . he’s not interested in hearing from us,” said Steve Caflisch, Maryland Sierra Club transportation chairman. “On other things, I just don’t know . . . I’m sort of pessimistic, but nobody’s kicked the tires yet.”
The cost of the outer Purple Line, which would connect New Carrollton and Tyson’s Corner in Virginia through College Park, Wheaton and Grosvenor, may force Ehrlich to reconsider the inner plan – connecting Bethesda, College Park and New Carrollton – favored by Glendening, Caflisch said.
State budget woes could limit Ehrlich’s ability to fund new transportation projects. The state faces a potential $1.2 billion shortfall next year with similar deficits projected for the following two years.
Building the ICC, critics say, will deplete the lion’s share of funds available for all projects.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a pro-Smart Growth group, says its mission is to get people around town without cars immediately.
“His (Ehrlich’s) priority is still building the highway,” she said, “that would consume a lot of our money for doing other things.”
Revenue shortfalls are predicted for the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for all transportation projects, a situation that would hinder the state’s ability to fund recommended transportation projects, Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari has said. Without new revenue, the state risks road and rail systems falling into disrepair, he said.
Ehrlich said he will not raise taxes to cover the budget shortfall, but he was open to increasing gas and titling taxes to pay for transportation needs. Money from the trust fund will not be transferred to cover other state debts, he said.
“I’ve made it clear that raising the gas tax is not the preferred option,” Ehrlich said. “At the same time, we need to increase revenue. We’re so underfunded with regard to transportation.”
This year, 44 percent of the transportation budget came from gas and titling taxes. Maryland has not increased the gas tax in 10 years – the longest period in state history – but, at 23.5 cents per gallon, it has the 13th highest gas tax in the country, according to MDOT.
MDOT estimates that for every penny increase in the gas tax, the state will net $20 million. A 1 percent increase in the titling tax nets $99 million.
Maryland may also increase its share of the national transportation pool.
Federal funds account for 23 percent of the trust fund budget. Ehrlich says he believes he can increase Maryland’s share of federal money because of his stint in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Transportation projects in Maryland,” said Fawell, “will be a be a direct beneficiary of his relationship with President Bush and Congress.” -30- CNS-11-27-02