Baltimore-Washington region’s aging infrastructure a roadblock to growth -- Gazette.Net







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“All economic growth and job creation starts with mobility, transportation resources that enable individuals to get to and from work efficiently and products to be transported in an expedited manner.” — Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding.

“The region that does not move is the region that fails.” — Montgomery County Planning Department Director Rollin Stanley.

Of the dozens of business, government and academic leaders interviewed for this report, most agreed on the need to resolve highway congestion that stretches from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., to the Baltimore region, while also repairing the region’s aging infrastructure of roads and bridges.

“Maryland’s reluctance to address stagnant transportation funding has resulted in billions of dollars of backlogged highway and transit projects that are planned but not funded for construction,” said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding. “D.C.-area highways are now ranked the most congested in the nation, and Baltimore-area highways are ranked as the sixth-most-congested.”

From both the public and private sectors come calls for more mass transit, including rapid bus transit. For Montgomery County, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s recommendations include expanding transit, bike paths and sidewalks “to achieve more sustainable, less congested communities.” The commission also recommends “building future homes near transit [to] create more opportunities for people to avoid driving.”

Many executives agree.

Gary S. Murray Sr., founder and managing member of Human Vision in Landover, pointed out the need for “clusters of businesses and communities near mass transit” to spur economic development.

Peter Greenleaf, president of biotech giant MedImmune of Gaithersburg, said, “Daily commuting is an important work-life issue for MedImmune’s Maryland-based employees. Because the [Interstate] 270 corridor is such a significant component of the state’s science and technology hub, it is important for state leaders to focus on our transportation network and the state’s underfunded Transportation Trust Fund.”

But how to replenish that fund and keep it funded is the question.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding recently recommended a 15-cent gas tax increase phased in over three years, plus other vehicle fee increases, to help generate $870 million annually to pay for transit initiatives and local road repairs. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said he is on board for raising the current gas tax of 23.5 cents per gallon.

But with a recent poll showing public resistance to a gas tax increase, mustering enough votes in the General Assembly next year could prove challenging.

In a survey in September of registered voters by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies of Annapolis, almost 60 percent of respondents opposed an increase in the gas tax, even if most of the funds would be dedicated for transportation projects.

The business community is far from united on the matter. Some groups, including the Maryland and Montgomery County chambers of commerce, back an increase, provided the money is spent on transportation projects.

But other businesspeople oppose a tax hike, saying it would cut into their bottom line. For example, Bob Perini said raising the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon would cost his Gaithersburg water-delivery company, DrinkMore Water, from $500 to $800 per month.

Free transit, more productivity

At least one prominent executive in the region says an increase in the gas tax is not only necessary but can spawn other initiatives to increase productivity, such as free and better mass transit.

Jack Garson, founder of Bethesda law firm Garson Claxton and a member over the years of various state, county and regional advisory boards, said raising the gasoline tax is only fair, “so that all of the costs of driving are borne by drivers. This will increase the cost of driving to an amount that more closely approximates the true expenses created by driving.”

Some of the newly generated revenues should go to improving and building roads, he said.

“But I would devote a large share to improving and constructing mass transit, especially subway systems. I would entirely eliminate the fee to users of the subways and run the trains on a 24/7 continuous basis,” Garson said.

Mass transit routes should be “dramatically extended ... This would result in increased usage, eliminate the costs associated with personnel and equipment for the collection of subway fees, [and] enhance productivity as businesses and society at large would have a new, round-the-clock means of traveling vast distances,” he said.

“It would potentially be the equivalent of a new Internet for people, not data. Free mass transit all of the time would produce all kinds of new business and new ways of doing business,” Garson said. “Similarly, the reduction in road congestion would then reduce time lost in traffic and the wear and tear on, and need for, new roads."

The region’s transportation system simply is outdated, Stanley said.

“We have largely built an infrastructure geared to a growth model that has persisted beyond its time, resulting in a network of roads and utilities that either need replacement or are near their due date,” he said.

Beyond the trust fund model for revamping the transportation system, the private sector has a role to play, too, said David L. Winstead, a lawyer with Ballard Spahr and former state transportation secretary.

Winstead pointed out that although shoring up the Transportation Trust Fund must be addressed in the 2012 legislative session, “there is an excellent example in the White Flint Partnership to provide innovative transportation improvements such as rapid transit, which will bring jobs, growth, taxes and amenities” to Rockville.

The partnership “has agreed to fund $280 million in infrastructure with the buildout of the White Flint Sector Plan, matched by $152 million of county funds,” Winstead said. “This public-private approach is a part of the solution for the county and Maryland's transportation needs in the future, as well as serving as a national model.”