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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column said that the Virginia General Assembly was about to approve $4 billion in borrowing for transportation. The correct figure was $2.9 billion. The assembly has since approved the measure. This version has been corrected.

Maryland's transportation crisis is arguably worse than Virginia's

On a rainy Monday, officials gathered in Gaithersburg for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony before the Wednesday opening of the Intercounty Connector, the 18.8-mile highway that will connect Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The ICC's opening was scheduled for Tuesday but was delayed a day because of weather concerns.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 11:24 PM

Love it or hate it, the Intercounty Connector is the first major new highway to be built in suburban Maryland in a generation. It's also almost certainly the last.

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Montgomery and Prince George's counties should cross their fingers that the ICC, whose first segment opened Wednesday, will ease congestion as hoped.

That's because Maryland has no money for the foreseeable future for further, critical transportation improvements - neither for roads nor transit projects like the light-rail Purple Line.

The state doesn't even have enough cash to catch up on needed maintenance. A quarter of Maryland's roads are rated "poor" in industry studies. That typically means they have so many ruts, cracks and potholes that they need to be rebuilt rather than just repaved.

"The State's transportation system finds itself on the verge of financial collapse," Maryland's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding concluded in a report issued Friday.

These sorry facts illustrate a plight that might come as a surprise to many in our region: Although Virginia's transportation woes get more attention, Maryland's are arguably worse.

The most congested stretch of the Capital Beltway is in Maryland. Virginia's currently working hard on two big projects, the Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport and HOT lanes on the Beltway. Maryland's only got one, the ICC.

Also, Virginia's General Assembly is about to approve $2.9 billion in borrowing for transportation, while it's not at all clear that the Maryland legislature will approve new funds for transportation this year.

"Maryland has been kind of skimming along under the radar. Not many people knew their transportation funds were in such dire shape," said Bob Buchanan, president of the 2030 Group, a regional development and business association.

If Maryland is going to serve its residents, not to mention keep up with Virginia, it needs to get serious about finding money for transportation. The cash should come not only from raising the gasoline tax, whose value is declining as cars use less fuel, but also from a bunch of sources. Gov. Martin O'Malley and others say these could include partnerships with private business similar to the kind used in Virginia.

Also, and this is crucial, Maryland should take advantage of the current crisis by making a long-term deal with its taxpayers and businesses: If you agree to pony up the transportation money, we'll make sure we don't repeat past mistakes and just build roads willy-nilly that encourage excessive suburban sprawl.

Note that modifier "excessive." Given how much our region is expected to grow in coming decades, and given how much people like to have a private home with a yard, it's not realistic to stop sprawl altogether.


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