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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

By Robert McCartney
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.

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.

But state and local governments could do a lot to limit the damage by channeling more money into mass transit and making smarter choices about where to locate homes and jobs.

For instance, the state could promise to make it a higher priority to build the Corridor Cities Transitway from Rockville north to the Clarksburg area than to again widen I-270, which covers approximately the same route. It could target funds to improving road, bike and pedestrian access around Metro stations in Prince George's County rather than widening roads farther out in the county.

That's the approach favored in a report issued Tuesday by the pro-smart growth organization 1000 Friends of Maryland.

"Each time we widen a highway, we make it easier for people to live further and further away. It makes no sense to keep doing that," Executive Director Dru Schmidt-Perkins said.

Without going into detail, Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley was receptive. When money becomes available, she said, "I don't think we're going to see the kind of traditional highway projects that we have in the past."

So, to return to the starting point, does all that mean that building the ICC was a mistake? The smart-growth advocates certainly think so. They argue, in part, that the road has absorbed too much money that was potentially available for other purposes. It's eating up a chunk of Maryland's federal highway money through 2020. It's also draining toll revenue from facilities like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

But the recession, rising construction costs and other factors played a bigger role in emptying the state's transportation coffers.

The ICC will also encourage more development - perhaps excessively so - in northern Montgomery and Prince George's. But such development was already underway, and the road provides the region another much-needed east-west link.

So I won't bad-mouth the ICC in hindsight. But Maryland should learn its lesson and embrace a trade-off in which the state handles future road and transit decisions wisely before forcing citizens to pay for them.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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