Sounding like a gubernatorial candidate, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced yesterday his support for a $1.1 billion highway, known as the Intercounty Connector, that would link Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
During a breakfast meeting in Prince George's, Ruppersberger recommended spending up to $200 million a year over the next two years on the proposed road and on other transportation projects well beyond his county's borders, including the port of Baltimore and Woodrow Wilson Bridge outside Washington.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening is scheduled to announce his decision today on whether to build the ICC.
Ruppersberger has yet to announce his candidacy for the 2002 governor's race, but his support for the ICC yesterday is seen as part of his effort to raise his statewide profile.
"I'm sure there's some politics involved," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a potential rival for the Democratic nomination in the next gubernatorial race.
"We're both getting around talking to people. He's working hard, I'm working hard. But 2002 is a long ways away," said Duncan, who introduced Ruppersberger at the Beltsville Holiday Inn yesterday.
Ruppersberger, who frequently lobbies in Annapolis for state money, appeared last night at a Westminster Kiwanis and Rotary Club meeting. He also showed up last week at an Upper Marlboro fund-raiser for Prince George's County Councilman M. H. Jim Estepp, a fellow Democrat.
In his first endorsement of the ICC, Ruppersberger said yesterday that the project will spur economic growth throughout the state.
"Clearly, we need a different method of financing new projects essential to our competitiveness," he told the Greater Washington Board of Trade and Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a pro-business watchdog group.
The highway, first proposed 50 years ago, has been promoted as a much-needed link between Baltimore and Washington because it would connect Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95. In July, a state advisory panel recommended building a four-lane toll highway that prohibits tractor-trailers.
Supporters say that the road would ease traffic congestion and make Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the port of Baltimore more accessible to the booming I-270 corridor.
"If we don't start it now, we're going to be looking at a nightmare of gridlock in 10 years," said Richard Parsons, director of Maryland governmental relations for the Washington trade group.
Parsons and other business leaders greeted Ruppersberger's comments warmly yesterday. Many said they have been pleading for years with Glendening to build the highway.
"This state needs politicians who have an understanding of the needs of business people in Maryland," said Robert O. Worcester, a spokesman for Maryland Business for Responsive Government. "Dutch would be a very good fit for the business community."
Ruppersberger also called yesterday for adding commuter rail lines in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, beefing up the port, widening the Baltimore Beltway and replacing Woodrow Wilson Bridge near Washington.
Ruppersberger said that spending some of the state's $323 million surplus on such big-ticket transportation projects would spur economic development.
"Such windfalls should be used on priorities," he said.
But Michael Morrill, a Glendening spokesman, said that the state surplus isn't enough to fund such projects. More long-term revenue sources are needed for them, he said.
"The surplus is a wonderful thing, but you can't use it to fund multiyear projects. You need to commit steady streams of revenue to them," Morrill said.
Glendening plans to announce a major initiative in the next few weeks on "the state's transportation needs and how we intend to fund them," Morrill said.
Replacing Woodrow Wilson Bridge is expected to cost $2 billion, with Maryland expected to fund $200 million of that, Morrill said.
State officials said that the $1.1 billion estimate for the Intercounty Connector is two to three years old, but even at that price, the state share would be $300 million.
"You're talking about very expensive, multiyear projects," Morrill said.