Declaring that he has kept his promise to improve Maryland's transportation system, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. unveiled road projects totaling $143 million yesterday, including a long-awaited project to relieve gridlock in Harford County.
The new projects bring the total allocated for road, transit and port projects next year to a little more than $4 billion. Previously announced projects include $1.5 billion for the Washington Metro and bus system, and $235 million for planning an east-west Baltimore transit line.
The largest of the projects unveiled yesterday is $84 million toward construction of an interchange at Interstate 95 and Route 24 in Harford, where the morning exodus of commuters from Bel Air routinely creates a traffic nightmare.
Harford County Executive James M. Harkins, who attended the State House news conference, said the impact of the project would be enormous.
"It's just a glorious day for county transportation and county citizens," said Harkins, a Republican. When he went to that intersection to wave campaign signs, he said, traffic frequently backed up as far as the eye could see. Construction is expected to begin in the fall of next year and be completed two years later.
Other Baltimore-area projects include $21 million to replace the 30-year-old deck of a bridge on the northern approach to the Harbor Tunnel and $1.25 million to design a widening of the northeastern section of the Baltimore Beltway between Interstate 83 and I-95.
Other projects include designing and acquiring land for safety-related improvements to Route 404 and U.S. 113 on the Eastern Shore, and to plan congestion relief on Route 26 near Eldersburg.
The projects are all part of a six-year, $12.3 billion transportation capital program. The governor's spending plans will be reviewed by the General Assembly during the coming 90-day session, but approval of the transportation package is generally routine.
The announcement in Annapolis was the culmination of months of appearances around the state at which Ehrlich and his appointees have brought news of plum projects, largely paid for out of the $238 million-a-year transportation revenue package the administration pushed through the General Assembly last spring.
As he has at many of the announcements, Ehrlich praised lawmakers who supported his legislative package - the centerpiece of which was higher vehicle registration fees - and expressed scorn for those who opposed it while supporting local projects.
Opponents of the governor's bill were not invited to yesterday's event.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, who supported the bill, said Ehrlich's hardball approach was counterproductive. "I don't think it intimidates people into voting his way, but it does annoy people," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Ehrlich said he did not punish dissenting legislators by withholding needed projects. "No corner of the state is discriminated against," he said.
Nevertheless, some of the architects of Ehrlich's legislative victory were among the beneficiaries.
House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County, who twisted the arms of reluctant Republicans to deliver a razor-thin victory on the critical vote, was there to hear the announcement of $1 million in funding for a highway project in his home county. Ehrlich hailed the Southern Maryland lawmaker as "the enforcer."
State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said the choice of projects was not influenced by legislators' votes. He said he received clear instructions from the governor and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan to select projects on the basis of merit.
Flanagan signaled yesterday that the administration is girding for a transportation fight in the General Assembly.
He said he will try to overturn a provision that he said was slipped into state budget law on the last night of last year's session, restricting the state's ability to issue bonds to finance the Intercounty Connector, an east-west highway that would link I-95 with Interstate 270 in the Washington suburbs.
ICC top priority
Ehrlich has made the ICC his No. 1 transportation priority. Flanagan said the provision could have been described as a "mischievous prank" had the consequences not been so serious.
The provision limits to 13 percent the proportion of future federal transportation funds that can be committed to repay bonds on a project. The administration's tentative plans call for earmarking about 20 percent to the ICC.
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House transportation subcommittee, said the provision was adopted to limit what he called "credit card borrowing" on the ICC.
"We are not going to let a single project eat the [transportation] trust fund," Franchot said.
New projects in the governor's proposed transportation budget:
Design and construction money to replace deck of Interstate 895 bridge on northern approach to Harbor Tunnel near Holabird Avenue.
Design money for improvements to northeastern Baltimore Beltway between Interstate 83 and Interstate 95.
Design and construction money for Rossville Boulevard bridge over Interstate 95.
Design and construction money for Cowenton Avenue bridge over Interstate 95.
Money to design, buy rights of way and construct interchange for Interstate 95 and Route 24.
For a list of highway projects in your area, see Page 2B.
To view all transportation projects by county, go to www.baltimoresun.com