Improvements delayed

The Baltimore Sun

The thousands of new employees coming to military-related jobs in Harford County in the next three years will likely grapple with traffic congestion caused by inadequate roads, failing intersections and insufficient mass transit.

Maryland's revenue shortfall has delayed several key projects that were designed to relieve commuter traffic to and from Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is expected to grow by about 10,000 jobs within the next three years. BRAC, the nationwide military base expansion set for a 2011 completion at APG, will bring those new employees to the county. The state's fiscal problems have delayed funding to improve roads and key intersections near the post and to extend commuter rail lines.

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said the economic downturn forced the state to defer $1.1 billion in transportation projects across Maryland. Funding for road improvements around military bases has been reduced by about one-third of what was originally planned, he said.

"We have kept the funding for engineering and right-of-way acquisition in place so we can keep these projects on schedule in the hope that the revenue picture improves," Pedersen said. "We are still working to make these projects possible, but, obviously, we have to have the revenues available."

Shortages in transportation funds have pushed many projects so far into the future that it will be nearly impossible to meet BRAC's deadline, said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"We will be looking at logjams," Fry said. "Five key intersections that are critical to ingress and egress at APG are deferred. Even the number of trains and the times are limited. We need to figure out how to expedite these projects, not delay them. We have to push and cajole legislators to make these projects a priority."

In a meeting with the General Assembly's Joint Committee on BRAC at Cecil Community College last week, Fry said nearly $115 million in road improvements, critical to handling increased traffic at APG, will lag far behind the Army's implementation of BRAC.

The planned extensions of the MARC rail service into Cecil County and Delaware will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest, exacerbating the situation by forcing commuters to use the highways instead of the trains.

"Without a doubt, the underlying challenge confronting the Maryland Department of Transportation and the justification for the delay in needed transportation projects, BRAC and non-BRAC related, is lack of funding," Fry told the joint committee.

Harford officials have asked the state to reassess the road priorities and move forward with work on eight intersections near APG, said James C. Richardson, director of economic development.

"We have been saying all along that the eight intersections that will be critical at APG have to be done," Richardson said.

"These are pinch-point intersections with Route 40 and I-95. Once traffic gets to the highways, motorists will find alternative routes, but first they have to get through the intersections."

Of greatest concern is the main entrance to the post at Routes 40 and 715. The Army is building an eight-lane highway to accommodate increased traffic at APG. Those eight lanes will drop to four at the main gate. As it stands now, those four lanes would have to merge into two at Routes 40 and 715, Richardson said.

The state originally allocated $47 million for intersection improvements, but has since cut that to $31 million, $5 million short of the $36 million estimated for the main gate crossing with costs expected to rise before construction begins, Richardson said.

"Most people will want to use this intersection, which will be nearest to the new communications campus at APG," he said. "Without improvements, we would be looking at a tremendous bottleneck."

County officials will "move forward as if the state will meet its obligations," said Robert Thomas, county spokesman. "We are preparing for BRAC and continuing to work with state officials to meet that end."

George Mercer, APG spokesman, said while the post cannot control what occurs outside its gates, military officials are determined to contribute whatever they can to avoid gridlock.

"We have been working with federal, state and county leaders, and community groups to help them and us achieve what we need to accommodate BRAC," Mercer said. "That cooperation will continue whatever constraints there are on revenues. We have to do what we can with what we have now to achieve the best possible results."

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business advocacy group, has appointed a Transportation Financing Task Force to research and recommend alternative funding sources for roads and transit projects. Any new revenues should not be tied to declining gas taxes or motor vehicle fees, as they are now, Fry said.

"The panel will look at the current way of funding transportation and see if there are better ways through other sources to meet the growing needs and escalating costs," he said. "We will look at models from other states and even other countries to identify new funding streams."

At the very least, the GBC wants the projects designed and engineered so that "when the economy changes, we are ready to move," Fry said.

While it is too early to tell what the economy will look like next year, Pedersen said he remains hopeful that construction can proceed in a timely manner.

"All the preliminary activities for these projects are still fully funded," he said. "If the revenue picture improves, we can restore construction funding next year."

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