Light Turns Red on Transportation Plans
State Cuts Could Cost County $112.7 Million, Delaying or Endangering 9 Major Projects

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said she became "really cranky."

Edgar Gonzalez, Montgomery's deputy director for transportation policy, summed up his feelings with a weary chuckle: "It hasn't been a good day."

Others let out small gasps as they read down the list.

As word of Maryland's proposed $1.1 billion in cuts to road and transit projects statewide reached Montgomery officials and transportation activists last week, the reaction was swift -- and a bit stunned. All told, the county could lose about $112.7 million for nine major projects, causing construction delays for some and throwing the future of others into question.

The cuts come as Maryland transportation officials are grappling with lower-than-anticipated revenue due largely to the economic slowdown and high gas prices that have caused motorists to buy less gas and fewer vehicles. The gas tax and registration fees are key sources of transportation funding.

"This is a lot larger than we expected," Gonzalez said of the Montgomery cuts.

Transit reductions aimed at Montgomery include $5 million that had been allotted to buy Ride On buses this year, $25 million in planning money for a Purple Line and $42.5 million in planning money for a Corridor Cities Transitway in the Interstate 270 corridor. Road projects losing money include replacing the stoplights at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road with an interchange and building a new interchange on I-270 at Watkins Mill Road in Gaithersburg. Money also would be siphoned from improvements planned for Clopper Road and for Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and the Capital Beltway.

Montgomery officials say those hit hardest will be the residents slogging through ever-worsening traffic.

Floreen, who chairs the council's transportation committee, called the cuts she had seen for Montgomery "devastating." She said she knew gas tax revenue and other transportation-related collections were down but found it "shocking" that the spending reductions extended over six years.

"Once again, transportation is slipping to the end of the line," Floreen said.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he was "obviously disappointed" but optimistic that funding could be restored after the economy picks up.

"I'm hopeful this will be relatively short-term," Leggett said. "We'll fight to get projects back online."

Leggett said he was most concerned about losing money for Ride On just as high gas prices are leading more people to ride buses. He said he also worried about the loss of $15.8 million, or one-third of the money the state had pledged to improve intersections around the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda to handle increasing traffic after Walter Reed Army Medical Center staff members and patients move there in 2011. The move is part of the military's base realignment and closure process.

Gonzalez said county staff members will work with the state to suggest "possible substitutions" of cuts that could be made in lieu of the Ride On and BRAC-related reductions. Projects the county will work hardest to save will be prioritized based on "what's going to hurt us most and the immediacy of the hurt," he said.

The cuts do not affect Montgomery's, and Maryland's, largest project -- ongoing construction of the six-lane intercounty connector -- because the highway is financed through its own plan. The 18.8-mile toll road to run between Gaithersburg and Laurel is budgeted to cost $2.4 billion and is being financed primarily through the sale of bonds. The debt service will be covered with tolls collected on the connector as well as other Maryland bridges and tunnels and with part of the state's future federal highway funds.

However, Montgomery officials homed in on allocations for two transit projects: the proposed 16-mile Purple Line transit link between Bethesda and New Carrollton via Silver Spring, and the 13.5-mile north-south Corridor Cities Transitway project in the I-270 corridor, between the Clarksburg area and the Shady Grove Metro station. The state is studying both as potential light-rail lines or busways.

The state added $763,000 in Purple Line planning money over the next two years but cut $25 million in the following four years. That cut amounts to about 20 percent of the $130 million total allotted for planning the Purple Line, Montgomery officials said.

The Corridor Cities Transitway appeared to take a bigger hit. Although the state added $200,000 for next year, it cut $42.5 million in the following five years -- almost half of the $91 million allotted to planning the project.

Henry Kay, deputy administrator of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration, said the state ensured that both projects would have enough money to complete the studies necessary to compete soon for critical federal transit dollars. The planning money that was cut had been overbudgeted, he said.

More money was cut from the Corridor Cities Transitway, Kay said, because transit officials realized its simpler design would be cheaper to plan. Unlike a Purple Line, it would not require tunnels or complicated bridges, he said.

"The key thing is that planning and engineering for both is still fully funded," Kay said. "The priority is to maintain the momentum we have established for these projects."

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