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Transportation leaders say future depends on continued investment

Summit hosted downtown by Greater Baltimore Committee

By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

7:34 PM EST, November 18, 2013

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Leaders of Maryland's transportation industry said Monday that the state's future depends on continued infrastructure investment, beyond the $4.4 billion already scheduled for highway and mass transit systems in the next six years.

Such investment will be the deciding factor between "a future of mobility and one of stagnation" in an already congested but still-growing region, Donald Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said at the group's annual transportation summit.

The event filled a banquet hall at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards with industry officials, from those pushing smart growth and transit-oriented development to those interested in winning major transportation contracts on projects such as the planned Red Line rail extension in Baltimore.

While the state's new gas tax, approved by the Maryland General Assembly this year, provides billions in funding, Fry and industry officials said more money is needed to increase capacity along commuter rail lines and upgrade or replace bridges and other infrastructure.

"The needs always far exceed the amount of money," Fry said.

Leif Dormsjo, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the tax and other new fees, which passed despite Republican objections that they were too steep for consumers, have taken the state off "life-support in terms of the amount of investment" it could make.

Henry Kay, executive director of transit development and delivery at the Maryland Transit Administration, said the state can leverage its state dollars to attract federal funds for major projects.

Still, hurdles remain. Most major projects are years away from being completed. And most parking lots at MARC stations are at or near capacity, said Simon Taylor, the MTA's chief administrator.

Mitch Warren, executive director of the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission, said the Washington-to-Boston corridor lost more than $26 billion in 2011 alone because traffic congestion kept workers out of the office.

Long-term transportation demands in the region are extensive, he said, with aging bridges being one of the largest problems. Maryland and other states up and down the corridor are struggling to respond to decaying infrastructure after years of neglect, Warren said.

"The demand's growing, but our assets are aging," he said. "We've been decapitalizing our assets. We haven't been investing in them."

The state has tried to defray costs and quicken the pace of projects by approving public-private partnerships, or P3s. Such partnerships have been used in recent years to redevelop travel plazas on Interstate 95 and provide commercial vendors at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Policymakers also are focused on shifting commuter attitudes to embrace public transportation. A report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group recently found Marylanders are driving less, but some say more could be done to get drivers off the road.

But even rail is facing increased congestion, including the state's MARC and Amtrak lines. Among the proposed solutions are the east-west Red Line in Baltimore and the planned Purple Line for Maryland's Washington suburbs, the latter of which will also be completed under a P3 structure. Some have floated the idea of expanding rail connections into Northern Virginia.

Joe Trapani, a division manager for La Plata-based Facchina Construction Co., which has contracts with the state for the build-out of the Intercounty Connector, asked about public-private partnership contracts for the Red Line, which officials said are likely.

Trapani said profit margins on major mass transit projects are often slim, so he's looking forward to better understanding the contract structure. Officials offered few new details, but said the project would likely consist of several major contracts and many other smaller ones to spread risk.

Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect, asked about high-speed and maglev trains and whether officials plan to incorporate Baltimore's Penn Station into future plans. Philipsen said he wants to "revitalize" the station and its surrounding neighborhood, and that ensuring it is part of any new high-speed system would help.

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