State wants more funding for ICC project

The Ehrlich administration told lawmakers yesterday that it wants to use more future federal highway funds than allowed under current law to build a proposed east-west highway in the Washington suburbs.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said the state needs such authority to finance construction of the Intercounty Connector. He warned that delay could add $100 million a year to the cost of the toll road, now estimated at $2.1 billion.

The proposal to use more funds ran into immediate opposition from Del. Peter Franchot, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the transportation budget. The Montgomery County Democrat said the plan would divert money from other needed projects and could put the ICC in jeopardy.

Franchot, a self-described ICC supporter, instead suggested "a modest increase" in the state gasoline tax -- an idea that has been soundly rejected by the administration and General Assembly Republicans.

"We need more of a pay-as-you-go component rather than putting everything into tolls and federal highway funding," Franchot said. Current plans call for financing about half the cost of the ICC by borrowing against federal payments, and paying for most of the rest with bonds backed by tolls.

Flanagan announced last week that the estimated cost of the highway, which would run from U.S. 1 in Laurel to the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County, had increased from the previous projection of $1.7 billion. He said the increase was largely the result of plans to spend more to soften the ICC's impact on water quality.

Flanagan appeared before two legislative panels yesterday to ask lawmakers to raise the 13 percent limit on the amount of future federal highway fund increases that could be used to repay ICC bonds to 20 percent. His request faced no resistance in the Senate budget committee but received a chilly reception in the House subcommittee. The limit was included in budget legislation at the insistence of House leaders.

Franchot, an outspoken critic of the administration, derided its proposal to increase borrowing against future federal payments as "Immaculate Conception money."

Flanagan disagreed with Franchot's contention that the higher limit would hurt other parts of the state. "I get very upset at the suggestion that we would take money out of other people's projects," the transportation secretary said.

The administration's proposal would not affect current road work, but could mean that future projects would compete for a smaller pool of federal highway funds left over after bond payments. Under current law, 87 percent of future increases would be available for non-ICC projects; the administration wants to make that 80 percent.

Some lawmakers see that as a small price to pay to get moving on a project that has been on the drawing board for almost a half-century. House Minority Leader George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, called Flanagan's proposal "the fairest and the best and the quickest way" to build the ICC.