ANNAPOLIS – When Gov. Robert Ehrlich campaigned in Montgomery County last fall, he pledged to relieve traffic gridlock and build more roads for the area’s growing population.
Six months later, county lawmakers are calling the governor a hypocrite, though he’s has made good on some promises, like restarting the Inter-county Connector.
Critics point out that Ehrlich raided the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to help balance Maryland’s budget. And he’s threatened to veto legislation that creates a local vehicle surcharge for county residents to help finance road projects.
“There was a mandate in Montgomery County – to improve traffic conditions and congestion,” said Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan. “There’s no indication how we’re going to make up the money taken out (of the trust fund).”
Nonsense, Ehrlich says. Duncan’s criticism is nothing new, and he should recognize that tough economic times prompted the transfers.
“Doug is a smart guy,” Ehrlich said. “He knows we have a budget deficit.”
Duncan joined the county’s General Assembly delegation Tuesday for a news conference to summarize legislative accomplishments in the 2003 session, which ended Monday.
Highlights included passage of a vehicle surcharge to fund Duncan’s $1 billion, 10-year “Go Montgomery!” transportation program, and approval for speed cameras to be placed in county residential and school areas.
But with a Republican administration and a Democrat-controlled Legislature, unlike most years, lawmakers had less to showcase. Budget battles and controversy over slot machines took time away from issues that legislators say are still vital, like mass transit and road construction.
“I don’t have to tell you what a nightmare this has been,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, chairwoman of the county’s Senate delegation. “In my 29 years here, it’s the worst I’ve experienced.”
Ehrlich used the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to help cover a $1.8 billion general fund deficit. That doesn’t include $102 million in local aid to the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore. Meanwhile, budget forecasts predict a $700 million hole next year.
No plans exist to replenish the $300 million loan taken from the Trust Fund to cover the current deficit.
“With the demise of slots, it’s going to be difficult,” Ehrlich said. “Hopefully the economy recovers, hopefully Saddam is dead, hopefully the war is over.”
But Ehrlich can boast some transportation success.
By lobbying President Bush and the Department of Transportation, the governor helped win fast-track status for the Inter-county Connector, a proposed 18-mile highway connecting Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg with Interstate 95 in Laurel. The fast-track designation will halve the time spent studying the road’s environmental impact.
And when Ehrlich sought federal funding for state transportation projects last month, five Montgomery County mass transit initiatives were on his list, including the Inner Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway linking Bethesda with Gaithersburg.
Ehrlich also deflected criticism from Duncan, a possible Democratic challenger for governor in two years, as political rhetoric.
“Doug Duncan has been criticizing me since before I took office,” Ehrlich said. “People don’t want a four-year gubernatorial campaign. They’re getting tired of this.”