Despite ranking better than the national average, there are sill nearly 1,000 miles of Maryland roads rated as being in poor condition by the American Society of Civil Engineers and almost 400 bridges considered structurally deficient, a situation that could be worsened by federal and state budget woes that have decreased transportation spending since 2008.
The real impact of that poor infrastructure was made clear on Feb. 10 when a chunk of concrete fell from a Capital Beltway overpass to damage a vehicle, thankfully without serious injuries to the driver.
The possible functional depletion of the Federal Highway Trust Fund as soon as this summer is poised to make matters worse if Congress cannot find a solution, while ultimately small municipalities like those in Carroll County will bear the brunt of any future funding cuts.
Federal and state
According to numbers obtained by the Associated Press, money distributed among the 50 states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund for use on highways and bridges decreased 3.5 percent between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2013, from $41.2 billion to $39.7 billion.
Maryland's share of the federal revenue was $605 million in fiscal year 2003, rose to $644 million in 2008 and shrunk by 8.9 percent to $587 million in 2013.
That's not the whole story however, according to David Buck, a Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman. Maryland receives federal highway money in two broad categories: apportionments, which are a formula-derived share of the total Federal Highway Trust Fund money given to all the states each year; and allocations, special disbursements paid out for, and restricted to, specific projects.
After removing allocations for special projects, Buck said, federal funding to Maryland has actually trended slightly upward, coming in at $423.5 million in fiscal year 2003, $551 million in 2008 and increasing to $578 million in 2013. Buck said there was a further increase to $580 million in fiscal year 2014.
"Back in 2003 ... we had $130 million [in allocations] specifically going to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that drove our number up really high," Buck said. "Compared to 2008 and 2013, it looked like we went really far down."
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge carries 12 lanes of I-95 and I-495 across the Potomac River from Alexandria, Va., to Oxon Hill in Prince George's County.
But if federal funding for Maryland roads has not decreased yet, it might well soon.
According to Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives for the American Society of Civil Engineers, which issues reports on the state of the nation's transportation infrastructure and associated funding issues, the Federal Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to hit a roughly $15 billion shortfall later this year.
"The Federal Department of Transportation is saying that the money will run out 'in the summer.' I don't know if that means June or August, but at some point this summer we will have a situation where if we don't solve the problem by some means at the federal level, we will have to slow down or change the way they are paying out the money in the trust fund," Pallasch said. "We don't want that to happen in the summer. That's the major time for road construction projects."
The problem, according to Pallasch, is that the primary source of funding for the trust fund, the national gas tax, has not risen in more than 20 years. The tax currently stands at 18.4 cents per gallon of gas sold, just as it did in 1993 and unadjusted for inflation. Meanwhile Federal Highway Trust Fund expenditures have not been adjusted down to account for the declining revenue.
"If we want to maintain and improve the system that we have, we need to find a source of revenue that will fill the hole we have. ... But even when you spend to fill that hole, that's only level, which actually doesn't necessarily help us advance or help improve the infrastructure," Pallasch said. "Our concern is if you look at our infrastructure report card, roads received [a] grade of D, bridges got C+ on the national average. ... What we face if you look nationally is that 32 percent of our major roads are in poor or mediocre condition."
The American Society of Civil Engineers has advocated a user fee model to fix the Highway Trust Fund, whereby the national gas tax is raised by 15 cents to put the fund on more sustainable footing, but Pallasch said the organization is interested in any solution that will provide long-term funding for the Highway Trust Fund.
The answer that Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, D-District 8, favors is an ambitious international tax code reform plan that President Obama has advanced that would tax trillions of dollars currently held overseas by large corporations in order to invigorate the Highway Trust Fund.
"The idea is to use tax reform to close some of these perverse tax loopholes that encourage multinationals to move jobs and capital overseas, and then use the savings from that tax reform to invest in modernizing our infrastructure here at home," Van Hollen said. "It addresses two issues with one solution."
The plan would tax overseas cash held by American companies at 14 percent immediately and set a tax on foreign-earned profits at 19 percent going forward, according to Van Hollen, while shifting the overall corporate tax from the current 35 percent to 28 percent.
He said a portion of the tax revenue generated from the roughly $2 trillion in cash held overseas would allow for a robust Highway Trust Fund over a four- to five-year period. It's not a permanent solution, but it's better than the nine-month to one-year patchwork funding solutions Congress has approved recently, Van Hollen said.
Whatever the solution, which must ultimately be a bipartisan effort, Van Hollen said, it's crucial that Congress act to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from becoming insolvent this year because the stakes are both tangible and imminent.
"Our current system of roads and bridges and other infrastructure is falling apart. We saw part of an overpass fall the other day — break away and fall. If we don't replenish this fund, we will see our infrastructure continue to deteriorate," he said. "We have to do better than simply repair our infrastructure: We really need to modernize our infrastructure in order to compete in the global economy in the 21st century."
The point that transportation infrastructure is crucial to economic growth is one Pallasch said the American Society of Civil Engineers strives to drive home.
"If you look at it from a Maryland perspective, you have the Port of Baltimore, a significant economic driver," he said. "When something comes into the Port of Baltimore, it needs to get out and vice versa."
According to the American Society of Civil Engineer's 2011 report card for Maryland's infrastructure, about 20 percent of Maryland's roads are in poor condition — about 1,081 of the state's 5,407 miles of major roads — earning them a grade of C-.
While better than the national D- average, Pallasch said that poor roads cost Maryland drivers almost $2 billion in repairs and additional vehicle maintenance each year, or roughly $460 per driver annually.
The report also graded Maryland's highway bridges a B-, a well-maintained system that nevertheless contains 359 structurally deficient bridges — about 7 percent of the 5,140 bridges in the state — that will require continued funding to maintain and increased funding to improve.
The state's Transportation Trust Fund comprises several sources, both state and federal. The two largest sources of state funding — other than federal money — comes from fuel and titling taxes, according to the DOT's website.
Unlike federal spending after project allocations, Maryland highway spending did decrease between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, from $2.1 billion to $1.9 billion — in part because of the economic problems facing the state, but also, according to Pallasch, because Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund was often raided by Annapolis.
A ballot measure to prevent the fund from being raided in the future was passed by voters in November. The measure created a constitutional "lockbox" amendment that requires the Maryland governor declare a fiscal emergency and obtain approval from three-fifths of both the House and state Senate to reallocate that money.
"In Maryland, there has been a history of taking that money out of the Transportation Trust Fund and using it for other things, and that's why they passed this ballot measure," Pallasch said. "Since 2008, over $250 million was diverted from the transportation trust fund into the general fund in Maryland. ... That's no way to improve your road system. We were thrilled that Maryland passed that measure."
Federal funding to Carroll County for road infrastructure has remained static at $176,000 at least since 2003. Debbie Butler, chief of the county's Bureau of Engineering, said though the amount each local jurisdiction receives is formula-based, she is unsure why federal transportation aid to the county has stayed the same.
Ted Zaleski, director of the Department of Management and Budget, said this figure is almost inconsequential when considering the total revenue spent on the county's infrastructure each year: From fiscal years 2003 to 2011, the county appropriated between $7 million and $9 million in county, state and federal funding, for infrastructure. Beginning in 2012, the total appropriated funding rose to $9.5 million, and for the past three fiscal years, it has topped $11 million.
The county's policy on spending state funds before 2012 made it difficult to track how much county revenue went into Carroll's infrastructure.
State funding to the county, on the other hand, has fluctuated during the past 12 years, increasing from $9.1 million in 2003 to $11.3 million in 2008. Since the economic downturn, state funding — known as Highway User Revenue — dropped more than 90 percent, falling to a low of $326,000 in fiscal year 2011.
For the county fiscal year 2015, state funding has risen to slightly more than $1 million.
Zaleski said the drastic decrease over a relatively short period of time comes because of former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration's decision to decrease the appropriation sizes for Highway User Revenues.
Every fiscal year, the governor's budget breaks down the state's Transportation Trust Fund into several categories: operating and capital budgets, debt service payments, deductions to other agencies and the Highway User Revenue, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation's website.
Historically, Zaleski said, local jurisdictions received about 30 percent of the state's total Transportation Trust Fund, but O'Malley's administration decreased this to between 6 to 7 percent for the current fiscal year, he said.
"[Gov. Larry] Hogan has said he would like to get back to the old formula, but one worry is they will do this by offsetting the loss with other cuts and make us no better off," Zaleski said.
Prior to fiscal year 2012, state funding was added to the county's operating budget and was used to pay employee salaries and other administrative and operational fees. Since then, the county has changed its policy and has added state funding directly to the county's capital budget so to lessen — even if only slightly — the burden of road repair and upkeep on Carroll.
Since state funding was appropriated into the county's operating budget prior to 2012, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how much of the county's revenue has gone toward highway infrastructure during those years, Zaleski said. However, since fiscal year 2012, county infrastructure expenditures are far easier to track, he said.
From fiscal years 2012 to 2015, county expenditures have risen from $8.85 million to a little more than $10 million. Zaleski said the policy of appropriating state funding to the county's capital budget will continue going forward.
"Operating costs didn't go away, so we have continued to fund them and the capital costs even as [Highway User Revenues] decreased," Zaleski said. "Revenue went away, but the commitment to funding continued."
Boots on the ground: Infrastructure spending and municipalities
Following the flow of money and new asphalt far enough leads to end points, where the roads are cracked and the stream of funding is reduced to a trickle.
In New Windsor, there are more than 30 roads that need resurfacing within the next five years, according to Town Manager Frank Schaeffer, nine of which are critically degraded enough to require work within the next year, according to a study commissioned by the town. The estimated total cost of the five-year road maintenance plan would be $1.7 million.
"We get about $45,000 a year from state Highway User Revenue," Schaeffer said. "You can see that $5,000 per year, or $50,000 or even $100,000 a year is not going to make any kind of dent in that program. ... I don't know if I could even do one street for that amount money."
The New Windsor Town Council has had several meetings to discuss the possibility of using bonds to finance the repair of some of the worst roads in town, but according to Schaeffer, there are no good options so long as the town's main sources of internal revenue, property and income taxes, continue to languish on a slow recovery from the economic downturn that began in 2008.
"We, like many small towns, are behind the curve on doing road maintenance; the costs are just beyond the reach of what we can do," Schaeffer said. "The source of money is not just big enough."
In Westminster, the larger, more diverse tax base has left the city in a better position than its smaller neighbors in the wake of decreased state funding, according to Common Council President Robert Wack. He said the city has managed to spend between $500,000 and $1.5 million on its roads annually for a decade. It has to.
"The general problem of road maintenance — forget about upgrades or new and improved roads, just preventing roads from becoming worse — never goes away. We could spend way more than what we do spend, but it's all limited by what we get in Highway User Revenue. ... Last year, I think we got about a million. In it's heyday, we got around $1.8 million. A few years ago it dropped to around $200,000 and that's part of why we had to raise taxes in 2011," he said. "Over the past two, three years we have gotten back up to $800,000 to $1 million from Highway User Revenues, but we've learned not to count on it."
Accepting the state's financial situation while still recognizing its responsibilities, Wack said Westminster has adjusted its finances so that even if Highway User Revenue were to dry up completely, the city could still maintain its infrastructure. Finding a way to fund infrastructure maintenance is a decision he believes is as inevitable for everyone as time and gravity.
"People don't want to face up to the endless maintenance that is needed, but there is no free lunch and these costs will only get worse. It's just something the country has to fund," Wack said.
He added: "It's not just the roads; it's the bridges and the pipes in the water systems. It's all these deferred maintenance expenses, and it's slowly wearing down the entire country.
"This is a national problem that goes right to the heart of what our collective responsibilities are as citizens. ...This stuff isn't magical. The laws of physics decree that this stuff will wear down, and unless you can make continual investments in maintenance, stuff is going to break."
Bridges of Carroll County
Out of Carroll County's 210 bridges, 16 have been rated as structurally deficient.
A bridge is ranked based on several criteria, including the condition of its deck, superstructure, substructure or a culvert's structure. A structurally deficient rating is given when at least one of these elements are coded more serious in nature, said Debbie Butler, chief of the county's Bureau of Engineering.
"Structurally deficient does not mean the structure is not safe, but does indicate a detailed evaluation is needed to determine what, if any, repairs are needed," Butler said.
Brian Pallasch of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which publishes infrastructure report cards for states and the national infrastructure, said the percentage of Carroll's bridges that have been rated as structurally deficient — 7.6 percent — is significantly less than the national average of 11 percent in 2011.
Of these 16 bridges, only two are maintained by the state. These two bridges — one located on Md. 86 crossing South Branch Gunpowder Falls and another along Md. 496 crossing Big Pipe Creek — are currently under design by the State Highway Administration.
State-maintained bridges are inspected every two years for deficiencies, said David Buck, spokesman for the SHA. If a bridge is rated as structurally deficient, he said, the inspection frequency is increased to once every year, and sometimes every six months.
"We've never had a bridge project that didn't get repaired or replaced because of money," Buck said. "We have always had a commitment from our governors and secretaries for our bridges."
The county follows a similar inspection frequency for the 153 bridges it maintains, and has already allocated funds for eight of the 14 structurally deficient bridges in the capital budget, Butler said. The county is currently working on designs for repairing two other structurally deficient bridges, and has closed another until repairs can be made, she said.
Ted Zaleski, director of the county's Department of Management and Budget, said the majority of federal funding received by the state goes toward bridge repair and maintenance, and every bridge is eligible for federal funding up to 80 percent.
Structurally deficient bridges in Carroll County
Highway/road, Waterway crossed, Controlling jurisdiction, Status
Md. 86, South Branch Gunpowder Falls, state maintained, under design
Md. 496, Big Pipe Creek, state maintained, under design
Baumgardner Road, Piney Creek, county maintained, road and bridge closed to traffic
Starners Dam Road, Monocacy River, county maintained, no progress
McKinstry Mill Road, Little Pipe Creek, county maintained, no progress
McKinstry's Mill Road, Sam's Creek, county maintained, in capital program
Shepherd's Mill Road, Little Pipe Creek, county maintained, in preliminary design
Bear Run Road, Bear Branch, county maintained, in capital program
Hughes Shop Road, Bear Branch, county maintained, in capital program
Babylon Road, Silver Run, county maintained, in capital program
Gaither Road, South Branch Patapsco River, county maintained, in capital program
White Rock Road, Piney Run, county maintained, in final design
Hollingsworth Road, unnamed stream, county maintained, in capital program
Rohrbaugh Road, Grave Run, county maintained, no progress
Cape Horn Road North, unnamed stream, county maintained, in capital program