The sign, "Your Highway Dollars at Work" could soon be showing up in some surprising places:
* A 55-acre portion of the former Grove Farm near Sharpsburg, which the state will buy to preserve the spot where President Abraham Lincoln visited Union General George B. McClellan at the Battle of Antietam.
* A former bank in Odenton, which will be renovated as a museum celebrating the local railroading heritage.
* A 10-mile path to be built around Baltimore-Washington International Airport for bikers and pedestrians, eventually allowing them to travel to the popular Baltimore and Annapolis Trail at Glen Burnie.
It's a curious agenda for the Maryland Department of Transportation, an agency that was once synonymous with cutting trees and paving meadows.
Since last year, the agency has committed more than $16 million toward projects centering on recreation, historic preservation and beautification.
It is a trend that has begun to sweep the nation as state highway agencies invest hundreds of millions of dollars in train museums and biking trails, archaeological digs and parkland.
The "greening" of transportation agencies was mandated by Congress in late 1991 with the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
For the first time, states were required to spend a fixed portion of their share of federal highway funds on what the law calls "enhancements."
The act authorized $2.8 billion for enhancements out of a total of $151 billion for transportation projects over six years.
"People who think of highway programs as roads and bridges probably wouldn't think of this as something that their gas taxes are financing," said Frederick C. Skaer, chief of environmental programs for the Federal Highway Administration. "It's healthy for us in many respects."
A new sensitivity
The rationale was straightforward. Left to their own devices, states have too often failed to compensate for the destructive impact of transportation projects, particularly highway construction. By mandating conservation projects, the federal government has forced transportation agencies to develop a new sensitivity toward the concerns of grass-roots organizations like garden clubs, recreation councils and tourism groups.
"Historic preservation groups, for instance, have generally been
on the opposite side of the fence from us," said Mr. Skaer. "Now we get to sit on the same side."
Many states are just now coming to grips with the enhancement program. Less than 15 percent of the $771 million made available by the federal government so far has been committed to projects, Mr. Skaer said.
That has not been the case in Maryland, which was one of the first states to act. The state's plan to build a bike trail around
BWI Airport was the first enhancement project in the nation to qualify for federal funds, said a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.
The program was embraced by state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, who is a Civil War buff, avid outdoorsman and conservationist. The former Anne Arundel County executive was already serving as chairman of a statewide commission on "greenways," or linear parks, when he was named by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to the transportation post in December 1990.
"I wanted to develop a program early and test the limits of what the money could be used for -- before the federal government became hidebound by their rules," Mr. Lighthizer said. "This isn't economic development. It's about quality of life."
How funding will work
Under the formula that Maryland chose, the Transportation Department will pay for up to half the cost of eligible projects. Of that subsidy, 80 percent comes from the federal government and 20 percent from the state.
The remainder must come from a partner -- another state agency, a local jurisdiction, a nonprofit private organization, or some combination of those.
The renovation of the former Citizen's State Bank in Odenton is a typical project. The cost is projected at $137,195, with $55,000 coming from the enhancement program and $82,195 from the Odenton Heritage Society, a nonprofit group.
Constructed in 1917, the one-story, 900-square-foot cinder block building is little more than a dilapidated eyesore adjoining the Odenton Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) station. Heritage members want to turn it into a museum that would also serve coffee and doughnuts to morning commuters.
Without the government money, said Odenton Heritage Society president Sara Shoemaker, "we wouldn't be be able to pay for it."
"The enhancement money is vital," she said. "Look at the number of automobiles in this area and what they've done to the community. Look at the traffic in a little residential community. I think anything that enhances life here is great."
Neither the federal government nor the state requires that projects be related to transportation in all cases.
Mr. Lighthizer, who once taught a
community college Civil War course, has demonstrated a propensity for buying battlefield easements, including several parcels at Antietam and South Mountain.
Mr. Lighthizer defended those purchases as appropriate and said it was a "happy coincidence" that the projects related to his Civil War interests.
He pointed out that all enhancement projects must be approved a five-member committee that he chairs.
The committee is made up of the heads of the State Highway Administration and the Mass Transit Administration, the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and the state's historic preservation officer.
"It would be harder to explain the significance of a Civil War battlefield to someone who knows nothing about it," said Dr. Torrey C. Brown, the natural resources secretary. "I think it's been a wonderful, a fabulous program."
Federal officials admit that the enhancement program is not a traditional approach to transportation spending.
At a time when government has had to curb some programs, it may strike some taxpayers as a misplaced priority to finance such things as bike paths and landscaping.
"The official term may be transportation enhancements, but the unofficial term is pork barrel," said Scott Hodge, a federal budget expert with the Heritage Foundation. "It's an awful lot of money -- especially when you think about how people complain about deteriorating infrastructure in America -- to flush down a rat hole."
But supporters contend the money being spent today on recreational, historic or environmental projects doesn't begin to compensate for the way government has neglected those things in the past.
Between 1973 and 1991, $40 million in federal aid was spent on freestanding bicycle and pedestrian facilities, according to a recent survey by Rails-to-Trails, a Washington-based nonprofit group that supports converting abandoned rights of way to biker/hiker trails.
In the first 15 months of the enhancement program, $65 million has been spent on such projects, the survey shows.
"In the past, all the states used the excuse that all their highway money had to go to roads," said Robert S. Patten of Rails-to-Trails.
MARYLAND ENHANCEMENT PROJECTS
The enhancement program combines federal and state rTC funding with money from a local partner. Costs for the projects listed below are estimated totals.*
BWI Hiker/Biker Trail. Link Andover High School with trail around Baltimore-Washington International Airport and with Baltimore and Annapolis Trail. $6.4 million. Partner: Maryland Department of Transportation.
* Gwynns Falls/Middle Branch Greenways. Develop a 4.7-mile linear park and recreational trail to link B&O; Railroad Museum and Camden Yards with Owings Mills, the Liberty Reservoir and the Patapsco Valley Greenway. $1.7 million. Partner: Baltimore City, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and various community and civic groups.
* President Street Station. Restore historic rail station at Inner Harbor. $990,000. Partner: Baltimore City.
* Trolley Line No. 9. Convert former 1.1-mile stretch of trolley line at Benjamin Banneker Historical Park to paved path. $128,000. Partner: Baltimore County.
* Kent Narrows Project. Build a biker/hiker path around Kent Narrows. $3.3 million. Partner: Queen Anne's County.
* Anacostia Bikeways. Construct a 10-mile segment of bike trail along tributaries of the Anacostia River. Will serve three Metro stations and complete a 24-mile hiker/biker network. $4.8 million. Partner: Prince George's County.
* Capital Crescent Trail. Construct hiker/biker trail from Bethesda to District of Columbia line on former Georgetown branch of the B&O; Railroad. Trail would connect two Metro stops. $7.7 million. Partner: Montgomery County.
* Antietam Battlefield. Acquire 55-acre property known as Grove Farm where President Lincoln visited General McClellan. $633,000. Partner: Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
* Baywalk. Build public boardwalk in Calvert County community. $700,000. Partner: Town of North Beach.