Transportation chief says tolls could help finance ICC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The proposed Intercounty Connector, the Ehrlich administration's top transportation priority, could be built as a toll road, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday.

Flanagan's comments came as state officials outlined a staggering $10.5 billion in unfunded transportation maintenance and expansion needs between now and 2010. Among the projects for which money has not been found is the ICC, a proposed road linking Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 in the Washington suburbs. Its cost is estimated at $1.7 billion.

Transportation Department officials had suggested that some lanes of the ICC could be set aside as so-called High-Occupancy Toll lanes. That idea, which would let solo drivers buy their way into high-occupancy vehicle lanes, is still alive. But Flanagan said making it a full toll road is also an option.

"The ICC could be funded in substantial part with some sort of tolls," Flanagan said.

The transportation chief said the administration has promised to use the HOT concept -- disparaged by opponents as "Lexus lanes" -- only where the state expands highway capacity. But he noted that the ICC will be all new construction.

Flanagan did not go as far as to say the administration would back making the ICC a toll road. But he made it clear that he considers it one option for paying for the highway, which is on the fast track for federal approval but still open to court challenges.

The secretary answered questions after a late-afternoon meeting of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Transportation Task Force, where officials painted a grim picture of the gap between the state's needs and identified revenues.

A chart presented to the task force showed that the state has $10.4 billion in transportation needs between now and 2010 for which money can be counted on. That leaves $6.9 billion in expansion projects, $1.9 billion in "preservation" spending and the ICC money still unaccounted for -- a total of $10.5 billion.

"That was informative and depressing," said task force Chairman William K. Hellman after the presentation.

Turning to Flanagan, Hellman added: "Mr. Secretary, you're going to have some hard decisions to make. That's incredible."

The cost of the unfunded needs, which Hellman said was higher than expected, could increase pressure on the task force to raise gas taxes -- among other potentially unpopular measures.

"People should understand that the Ehrlich administration is intent on fighting congestion and improving roadway safety," Flanagan said. "We need to find a way to pay for that effort."

Flanagan sidestepped questions about a gas tax increase, but seemed to be preparing the public for bad news.

"The message today is that problem is going to get worse unless we are serious about fighting congestion," he said.

Hellman said the spending projects outlined by the department are legitimate needs. "It's not a wish list," he said.

However, the former transportation secretary said the state will not be able to fund its total needs. The question, he said, is how much it will be able to afford. The task force is expected to make its recommendations to the governor in late fall.

The gaps exist in most sectors of state transportation, but the department identified highways as the area with the greatest unfunded needs -- $7.3 billion.

In addition to new projects, large shortfalls affect many categories of maintenance, department officials say. The gaps exceed $100 million each for highway safety improvements, repaving roads, bridge replacement and improving the capacity of congested intersections.

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