The Hughes administration announced a major re-allocation of federal and state transportation funds today that will unclog two of Maryland's most notorious traffic bottlenecks: the uncompleted stretch of the National Freeway near Cumberland and the Vienna bridge on the Eastern Shore.
The $237 million transportation package, which might have short-term impact on state politics as profound as the long-range improvement in traffic patterns, was announced at an unusual State House news conference conducted by five top Maryland officeholders, four of whom are jockeying for position prior to the 1986 election.
The centerpiece of the package, parts of which must still be approved by regional, state and federal authorities, is the abandonment of a $117 million busway planned to speed commuter traffic between Baltimore County and Baltimore. Combined with $120 million freed up by a new financing scheme for the proposed Canton-Seagirt marine terminal in Baltimore harbor, the plan will funnel $115 million to fill in an 18-mile gap in the long-delayed National Freeway, and $60 million for a new four-lane bridge on Rte. 50 over the Nanticoke River in Dorchester County. The remaining funds will go toward various bus, subway and commuter projects in Baltimore County.
Along with a new bridge over the Choptank River in Cambridge, a project that goes out to bid this month, the Vienna bridge is expected to ease travel to Maryland's ocean resorts. Filling the last gap in the 111-mile National Freeway, which runs from Morgantown, W.Va. to Hancock, Md., promises to improve access to Western Maryland and spur economic development in the region.
The proposed busway was part of a $1 billion transfer of interstate highway funds put together by then-secretary of Transportation Lowell K. Bridwell in July 1983 that distributed money available from abandoned interstate highway projects among Baltimore area jurisdictions.
Though the plan announced today will reduce the shares of that transfer received by Baltimore and Baltimore County, it was endorsed by Baltimore Mayor William D. Schaefer and Baltimore County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson. Both men, who had previously raved about the busway, today said it was ill-conceived and would face significant public opposition.
"This is a much better, comprehensive plan," said Schaefer, who has been actively building alliances with other parts of the state in what many observers see as the prelude to a race for governor in 1986. "This is a great state; we are all interdependent on each other."
Added Hutchinson, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate or governor in 1986: "This helps the people from Oakland to Ocean City."
Both the Vienna Bridge and National Freeway projects are of enormous local political importance, and today's announcement was seen in the near term as solidifying support from Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore for a $317 million extension of the Baltimore subway system, which must be approved by the 1985 General Assembly.
But today's action could affect future battles over a regional mass transit tax and the fortunes of several Democratic politicians. Besides Schaefer and Hutchinson, they include Hughes, who is more and more seen as a likely Senate contender in 1986 and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, who is running for governor and who took part in the news conference.
Hughes, whose new transportation secretary, William Hellman, devised the plan, said today, "This is really what transportation is all about. You have to move the money around to where the need is."
By solving three thorny transportation problems, "this moves mass transit funding right to the top of the transportation agenda," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), who chairs a House appropriations subcommittee on transportation.