By Donald C. Fry
Twenty-four projects in the highly-congested Baltimore-Washington corridor are among the 40 top transportation infrastructure projects cited as “most needed” to support Maryland’s economic growth, according to a report released this week by TRIP, a national transportation research organization. The report supports a concern I have repeatedly expressed for years – the failure to invest in our transportation infrastructure is the most significant economic growth challenge facing our state.
The report cites 12 needed projects in the Washington, D.C. region, including three transit projects, and 12 projects in the Baltimore region, including two transit projects. Of 16 priority projects – all roads – the report identifies that are outside the Baltimore-Washington corridor, seven are on the Eastern Shore, six are in Western Maryland and three are in Southern Maryland.
So what do all of these 40 priority highway and transit projects widely distributed in virtually every area of the state have in common?
None of them will get accomplished until Maryland’s lawmakers find a way to increase revenue to Maryland’s stagnant Transportation Trust Fund.
With only days left in the Maryland General Assembly session, lawmakers are poised to go home from Annapolis without addressing the state’s growing transportation infrastructure crisis. It is characterized by a stagnant transportation fund and a massive backlog of dormant projects due mostly to the fact that the fund’s primary source of revenue, the per-gallon gas tax, has not been increased since 1992. Now we’re at a point where no construction funding has been provided for any new projects for at least two years.
At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, many lawmakers sought more specifics about projects that could be funded by increasing transportation revenue.
They will adjourn Monday leaving in their wake at least three lists detailing between them dozens of priority road and transit projects – all of which are on hold for lack of funding.
The TRIP list, released in a series of news conferences on April 5, is only the latest in a deluge of specifics that have been generated during the session by the state’s jurisdictions and transportation advocates.
The list includes many long-needed road projects that are also included in Maryland Department of Transportation priority lists from the state’s counties, such as widening Md. 32 in Howard and Carroll counties, BRAC-related intersection and road improvements in Harford and Anne Arundel counties, widening US 219 in Garrett County, and replacing the Dover bridge between Caroline and Talbot counties. The TRIP list also includes the Red Line and the Purple line that are well-known priority transit projects in Baltimore City and the DC suburbs.
Meanwhile, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake’s testimony about the need for transportation funding to address 14 Baltimore City bridges at risk provides evidence that the transportation funding crisis has moved beyond the stage of affecting needed new projects and is now impacting maintenance of existing critical road infrastructure.
Among the bridges needing repair is the Edmondson Avenue bridge that carries US 40 over Gwynns Falls. Design work on replacing that bridge has been halted due to lack of funds. The failure to address bridge concerns could result in weight restrictions being imposed or the potential closing of bridges, as occurred in Louisville, resulting in long detours for commuters and citizens.
Speakers at the TRIP news conferences this week appropriately framed the messages about the state of Maryland’s transportation infrastructure, as evidenced by the lists of priority projects awaiting our state leaders’ decision to do something about eroding transportation resources.
As a whole, Maryland’s roads “are not functioning the way they were intended,” said Jerry Jannetti, vice president of Parsons Brinkerhoff. “We in Maryland choose not to support Maryland infrastructure to the best of our ability.”
Michele Whelley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, expressed frustration at Maryland’s inability to aggressively deliver commuter rail transit projects when, in other states, jurisdictions such as Denver, San Francisco and even fiscally-challenged Detroit are moving ahead with them.
Maryland’s MARC commuter rail serves nine jurisdictions, “but it doesn’t run at night and it doesn’t run on weekends,” Whelley said. “How can we allow that to continue to happen?”
From my own standpoint, nine years of vocal advocacy by business leaders and a plethora of lawmaker-requested studies and recommendations for increasing the state’s transportation funding revenue have not budged our elected leaders from two decades on inaction.
As James Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, puts it: “Inactivity never gets the job done. Kicking the can down the road is the worst thing you can do.”
If you ask almost anyone in Annapolis, they will say that funding transportation infrastructure is important to them. But they are clearly demonstrating through their actions, or lack thereof, that it hasn’t yet become important enough to make it a priority.