Keeping Comfort in Baltimore a tough sell, O'Malley says

Gov. Martin O'Malley says Maryland will have a tough time persuading the Navy to keep the USNS Comfort docked in Baltimore, but he expects forthcoming commerce to bolster the waterfront's vibrancy.

O'Malley said Wednesday he will work with the state's congressional delegation, specifically Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, to try to keep the hospital ship here. But the reality, he said, is the Navy can save about $2 million a year by keeping the humanitarian vessel and floating emergency hospital at a military pier in Norfolk, Va.

"The hard economics of the matter is that the ship was docked at a private berth and paying $2 million when they could pay nothing by going to available naval facilities in Norfolk, and so it's a tough economic argument to make," the two-term Democratic governor said. "We're continuing to push back and see what we can do."

O'Malley's comments came following an update on his economic development efforts and legislative agenda at the United Way of Central Maryland's "In their own words" breakfast series.

The Navy announced its decision Tuesday to move the ship which has been kept in a commercial berth in Canton since the 1980s. The U.S. Fleet Forces Command estimates that the move will save $1.7 million the first year and $2.1 million in following years. Not everyone agrees with that estimate, and advocates argue that the vessel has generated some $35 million a year in economic impact while docked in Baltimore.

The decision follows at least 18 months of talks between officials for Maryland and the Navy.

O'Malley pledged to do his "very best" to keep the Comfort local while emphasizing the port's future economic prospects. The governor called the loss of the 40 jobs tied to the service of the ship a blow but in the next breath said the region will see the creation of 400 jobs as the global container line Hapag-Lloyd AG moves its business to Baltimore.

Next week, O'Malley said he will officially announce the German-based container line's arrival at the Port of Baltimore, where it is expected increase container traffic by roughly 10 percent. Baltimore will serve as the company's first U.S. stop for shipments from Northern Europe.

O'Malley's visit to Baltimore comes at about the half-way point in this year's legislative session. He briefed the 350 United Way donors gathered at the Hyatt Regency on his top legislative agenda items, including his push for a gasoline tax increase.

The governor said the price to improve the state's transportation system will only increase over time, both in construction costs and time residents spend commuting on congested roadways.

O'Malley's plan is to apply the state's 6 percent sales tax to gasoline on top of the 23-cent flat rate per gallon set 20 years ago. The increase would be phased in at a rate of 2 percent a year, unless the price of gasoline spikes by more than 15 percent in a year. As a way to increase support, O'Malley also has built in different incentives, such as increasing the portion of cash raised by the tax increase that goes to local governments.

The governor is also lobbying for the state to develop offshore wind energy as a way to push Maryland toward using 20 percent renewable energy in the next 10 years, an increase in the "flush tax" to pay for upgrades to the state's sewer and water systems to protect the Chesapeake Bay and the passage of a bill that would legalize same-sex marriages.

Asked if he feels more hopeful of the passage of one bill over another, O'Malley said, "I am most hopeful for progress and progress doesn't happen by itself. It is the product of choices that people make.

"Whether that progress is in the greater respect for the equal rights of all or whether that progress is in terms of creating jobs in the investments we make in education and innovation and infrastructure, I am hoping for progress."

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