County urged to speed up work on transportation plan


Howard County planners need to speed up work on a transportation master plan if they want to keep up with the county's needs, says the head of the panel that drafted the county's adequate public facilities laws.

"How do you do a realistic balancing act between schools, roads, police, parks and recreation if you don't have long-term projections . . . of what all those needs are," asked James H. Eacker, chairman of the 12-member Adequate Facilities Commission.

The county's chief planner said that without money to spend on transportation projects, the plan need not be rushed.

The commission was charged with drafting laws, adopted in February 1992, that would help roads and schools keep pace with the growth of homes and businesses in the county.

The legislation required that comprehensive master plans be drawn up for the most expensive facilities, such as schools, roads and sewers.

Those plans are supposed to guide officials in deciding how to spend an adequate facilities excise tax levied on development.

Mr. Eacker said commission members expected the plan to be ready this fall, in time for the beginning of the capital budget process. He said he was disappointed that the plan would not be completed for another two years.

He said he understood that the 20-year plan being worked on by county planners was delayed a year because of a shortage of money. Even so, Mr. Eacker said, he believes planners should get together as much of a 10-year plan as possible for consideration with next year's budget.

It is expected that the transit part of the plan will be finished in July and the roads segment by October.

Mr. Eacker's concern was echoed by County Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, who until Monday was chairwoman.

"I'm unhappy that we haven't had a plan. I'm unhappy that we haven't had a [transit] plan, and I'm unhappy that we haven't seen scenic-roads legislation. These things were promised, and we haven't seen them yet," Ms. Pendergrass said.

"We will have gone through a term and gone through four budgets not having had this information, and that's a problem," she said. Without such information, she said, "you make piecemeal decisions rather than basing them on a comprehensive plan."

The need for the planning document is not as pressing as Mr. Eacker thinks it is, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county director of planning and zoning.

Mr. Rutter said the county has not raised enough money from the excise tax for its use.

Since the law went into effect July 1, the county has collected about $3 million, which is not enough to fund transportation improvements, he said.

A year from now, the county expects to have about $9 million, but even then won't have the $18 million in general funds to meet the 2-to-1 match required by the adequate public facilities laws for transportation spending.

The need for school improvements will make it even harder for the county to find matching money for roads projects, Mr. Rutter said.

"By the late 1990s, we should be caught up on schools and putting more into roads," he said.

Ms. Pendergrass said she agreed that school improvements are a more immediate concern and reaffirmed her belief that half of the excise tax should be used for school projects.

The excise tax is now devoted entirely to road projects.

"I still think that we could use this money to go for schools," Ms. Pendergrass said.

She acknowledged, however, that when she proposed changing the law last spring, "I met with zero support from anyone."

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