ANNAPOLIS – When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich announced the 2004 Maryland Transportation Plan, he said the program over the next 20 years would provide a system that works for the people.
With the year coming to a close, critics are concerned that the state’s transportation program is unbalanced and too much is being spent on unnecessary projects.
But the critics are being unrealistic, said Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan.
“Like it or not, we have a love-hate relationship with automobiles and most of us have to rely on highways to get to work and do our family business,” Flanagan said. “A balanced transportation program has to acknowledge and respect the choices individuals are making.”
Yet the Audubon Naturalist Society complains the governor’s priorities are in the wrong place — particularly his focus on the Inter-county Connector, which would link Interstates 270 and 95.
“I would say it’s disappointing to see Governor Ehrlich using taxpayer dollars for photo ops on projects like an ICC when (some) of these projects are harmful to the environment,” said Brian Henry, Audubon Naturalist Society campaign coordinator.
One of the objectives outlined in the transportation plan was to incorporate environmental stewardship into all projects and activities. Instead, the administration is touting projects as environmentally sensitive when they are really an environmental disaster, Henry said.
“What we’re seeing is too much green-washing,” he said.
Overall, road projects do not benefit the environment, but there are ways to minimize impacts, said Brad Heavner, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. Although he does not agree with some of the projects being discussed, Heavner was less critical of the administration’s efforts.
“Some (of the projects) do have environmental mitigation and that’s a good thing,” Heavner said.
Maryland has improved under Ehrlich’s leadership and it is balancing the state’s conflicting transportation needs, Flanagan said.
“Governor Ehrlich’s vision for transportation is to continue to maintain a high level of excellence in public transit while aiming at getting more bang for our buck,” Flanagan said.
The money issue is a concern to some, who feel projects like the ICC will eat up funds for smaller projects.
“The governor is now proposing to mortgage a lot of our revenue for one project, the ICC, which means that the small projects that have been happening are going to be a lot more difficult to get going in the future,” Heavner said.
Transit officials are confident there is enough money to go around for all projects.
Sen. James E. DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, said he is concerned about a proposal to increase funding from bonds.
Flanagan is proposing to increase the use of Grant Anticipation Revenue, or GARVEE, bonds from 13 to 20 percent of the federal highway dollars set aside for Maryland. The bonds are repaid using federal highway money.
“Is it going to be taking funding from other projects?” DeGrange asked. “I don’t know that to be accurate, but of course we want to get all the details and I don’t think we have that at this point.”
A supporter of the ICC, DeGrange said he did not know of any projects that were at a standstill because of the ICC.
“We have identified smaller projects everywhere in the state that have a quicker payoff in terms of improving safety and relieving congestion,” Flanagan said.
Recently, the state has begun work on the Dover Bridge, the Hughesville Bypass and the Manchester Bypass.
The governor believes the state can build the ICC and smaller projects across the state, said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
Some feel there’s just not enough money in the Transportation Trust Fund to support projects.
Last year, the governor took $300 million from the fund to balance the state budget. He included some money to replenish it in his $237 million transportation funding package passed in the spring.
However, Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, is not convinced that there is enough money in the fund for future projects.
“He may be heading in the right direction, but you can’t keep going if you don’t have the money, and that’s the message he has to receive and realize and accept,” Ruben said.
The governor has followed through on some of his transportation promises, but not all of them, she said.
“It’s sort of impossible to have a complete balance without money,” Ruben said.
However, the Ehrlich administration is confident that the money will be there and transportation will continue to move forward. The governor has visited nearly two dozen projects ready to be built, and the passage of his transportation funding package will allow those projects to be completed, said Fawell.
“The transportation package,” said Fawell, “is benefiting every region in the state.”