Lower gas tax revenue, scoring mandate imperil future Harford highway projects, state transportation chief says

Route 22 intersection project in Aberdeen "slowly" moving along

Maryland Transportation Department officials brought their road show on the state's Consolidated Transportation Program to Harford County Friday morning, but in terms of new projects, they didn't come bearing any "$100 million birthday gifts," in the words of State Sen. Bob Cassilly.

The reality is funding for all transportation projects is experiencing an estimated shortfall of $746 million over the next six years because lower gasoline prices have also depressed gasoline tax revenue, state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said.

In addition, a new project scoring mandate imposed by the legislature last winter further imperils any new major highway projects in Harford County, he said.

But Rahn also said his department hopes to address some local projects that aren't funded yet and fall below the $10 million threshold to be included in the statewide CTP.

Rahn said the expected revenue shortfall equates to 5 percent of what the state planned to spend.

"We will manage our way out," he said confidently, while also warning many projects will be pushed back beyond 2023.

The transportation secretary and his senior staff discussed the CTP, a six-year program of capital projects for highways, transit, airports, the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore and Motor Vehicle Administration facilities, during an hour and 15-minute presentation in the County Council chambers in Bel Air.

Bob Cassilly co-hosted the meeting with Dels. Susan McComas and Andrew Cassilly. Representatives of the Harford County administration and the county's three municipal governments also attended.

With federal spending on highways in a holding pattern, gasoline tax revenue is the biggest piece of the highway construction revenue pie, and Harford's traffic congestion was bemoaned by all three legislators.

Route 22 intersections

Rahn did say the state is making progress on upgrading three intersections along Route 22 in Aberdeen leading to Aberdeen Proving Ground, part of the BRAC legacy highway improvements the state undertook with federal funding, the latter which Rahn conceded fell short of expectations in terms of the number of improvements that could be undertaken.

The improvements at Route 22 and Old Post Road should be completed by the end of 2016, those at Route 462 (Paradise Road) by fall 2017 and those at Beards Hill Road by spring 2018, the secretary said. Together, the three upgrades will cost nearly $46 million, according to the CTP, with $37 million being federal funds.

"I know it seems slow, but we have had some problems with utilities [relocation]," he said about the project, which got under way almost three years ago.

Aberdeen city officials and the State Highway Administration, which is overseeing the project, have been involved in ongoing discussion about how much each side should be responsible for the cost of relocating the city's water and sewer lines. City Manager Randy Robertson and city Public Works Director Kyle Torster, who attended the session, said no agreements have been reached, but Robertson said SHA's local representatives have thus far been "most accommodating."

By early 2017, a $21 million project should be started to upgrade the intersection of Routes 40 and 7 on the south side of Aberdeen, designed to improve traffic flow through an intersection that serves APG and the south Aberdeen and Perryman industrial areas, Rahn said.

The SHA also is resurfacing Route 7 between Abingdon Road and Route 24, a $2 million project that started this summer and is expected to be completed next spring.

Statewide, Rahn said the Hogan administration expects to spend $14.4 billion in the next six years on a variety of projects, plus another $2 billion in upgrades to the state's toll roads, bridges and tunnels.

The secretary also said, however, that if the controversial transportation project scoring system, which the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly approved last winter over a veto by the Republican governor, continues to stand, less populated areas like Harford won't get any new major projects.

Favors transit, high population areas

If not, he said, if the system used to rank and "apparently" select projects, 21 counties won't have any projects in the CTP, and the projects that will get funded will include five transit and one highway projects in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City.

He said he is hopeful the scoring system, whose implementation received a year's reprieve through a state attorney general's ruling, will be overturned by the legislature this coming winter.

Otherwise, he said, "we have run the numbers and the formula, as predicated, would only fund transit in high population areas."

The Harford legislators, who like the governor are Republicans, aren't optimistic any such changes will happen.

"I think some of those in the other counties are starting to realize what they have done," Bob Cassilly said following the presentation, "but they are still going to be out to dink Hogan, so I'm not sure this can be rescinded."

McComas was more blunt in her assessment, saying: "This is going to be a tough [General Assembly] session...it's all about power and control and trying to not elect Hogan so he won't be in control of redistricting."

Noting that Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore City "move in lockstep," McComas added: "We can't beat that population and it's going to kill us."

So-called out-year Harford County projects, which are included in the latest CTP "for planning purposes only," include studying upgrades to the Routes 7 and 159 intersection leading to the Perryman peninsula and reconstructing Route 1 and the Bel Air Bypass from Route 152 in Fallston to Hickory.

Under the highway and bridge preservation program, projects less than $10 million, the SHA has resurfacing projects slated for Route 22 between Prospect Mill Road and Route 136 in Churchville, rehabilitation of 11 bridges at various locations and safety improvements planned for 2018 on Castleton Road in the Darlington area.

Rahn said his department is committed to improving road surfaces, maintaining infrastructure and fixing 69 structurally deficient bridges across the state, the latter which he said will be completed in five years.

"We are committed to use the resources we have to build the best transportation system possible in Maryland," he said.

Harford wish list

Following the presentation, Rahn said a wish list of 16 highway and transit-related improvements County Executive Barry Glassman sent him in March is still under consideration. Included were construction of additional lanes on congested stretches of Routes 22 and 24, roundabouts at some other major intersections and improvements around the I-95/Route 543 interchange. The estimated cost for all was $28 million.

Rahn said he will be "looking for opportunities" to fund some of the projects on the list under the preservation program, mindful that the project reduced revenue from gasoline taxes is placing constraints on all transportation spending.

Other highlights from Friday's CTP presentation:

• Bob Cassilly praised Rahn and State Highway Administrator Greg Johnson for installing a pilot integrated traffic signal system at the Route 924/24 intersection in Abingdon, which is designed to speed the change of lights when traffic volume is low. Cassilly suggested Route 1 between Bel Air and Baltimore would be a good place for such a system, if the pilot program works.

• Rahn briefly mentioned the decision to limit bicycle access to the Route 40 Hatem Bridge to weekends and holidays only, noting "very few" are using the bridge, about 10 weekly.

• Maryland Transit Administrator Paul Comfort pitched the new Commuter Bus Route 425 that connects downtown Baltimore with employment centers in Edgewood and Aberdeen Proving Ground, which began operation on Oct. 3. He called the $3 to $5 one-way fare a bargain and urged everyone present to try it, noting that thus far the three daily buses aren't half full.

• All three legislators said the state should also should work harder to lessen congestion on highways feeding into Harford County and improve the MARC commuter rail system north of Baltimore so, as Cassilly put it, "people who sleep in populated areas can get to work in rural areas [like Harford]."

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