Montgomery County legislators have brokered a fragile compromise with their colleagues and Gov. Harry Hughes that could deliver as much as $6 million for highway planning and construction at two elementary schools in the rapidly growing "upcounty" area near Gaithersburg, key senators said today.
While far less than the roughly $40 million in road and school bonds that Montgomery sought from the General Assembly, a $6 million appropriation would represent at least a partial victory for the county's politicians, who are eager to take home funds to ease traffic congestion and classroom overcrowding.
Under the tentative agreement, the legislature would earmark $3 million so that Maryland officials could accelerate by at least one year the engineering design work for improvements on Rte. 118, which is Montgomery's priority highway project, legislators said. The other $3 million would go for the school work.
Several legislators said a turning point in the weeks of negotiations came Monday during a private meeting between Hughes and the leaders of the Montgomery delegation, Sen. Sidney Kramer and Del. Ida G. Ruben.
During the 30-minute session, Hughes flatly rejected the use of state bonds for major public construction projects in Montgomery, Kramer said.
But the governor reiterated his "sympathy and support" for accelerating the planning stages for the more than $9 million worth of improvements on Rte. 118 or a $14.7 million program to upgrade a two-lane stretch of Rte. 355, or both, Kramer added. Construction of those two projects, along with about $14 million for school building, comprised the original $40 million bond request by the legislators.
The state transportation department has devised no schedule to plan for the improvements on either highway, and the county government has had to earmark $250,000 of its own to plan the work on Rte. 118, in the stretch between Ridge Road and Riffle Ford Road.
A plan to accelerate design of Rte. 118 improvements would be similar to the Feb. 21 decision by state Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann to add new lanes to commuter-clogged I-270 about one year ahead of schedule.
Wayne McDaniel, Hughes' transportation aide, said, "We're always willing to take a look at accelerating [other projects], if we can find a way."
County officials stressed today that their agreement with the Hughes administration is not final and could be ravaged during the final two weeks of the legislature by rival politicians from Prince George's County, who are equally eager to bring home state aid.
But Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), who as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee will play a pivotal role in steering the agreement through the legislature, sounded upbeat about prospects of winning a portion of the $40 million Montgomery has sought for months.
"The bond bills are not going anywhere, but we don't need them," said Levitan. Instead, the legislature could simply add $3 million for Montgomery roads to the state transportation trust fund -- a five-year, $4.5 billion pool of construction money -- and another $3 million to the state agency that supports school construction around the state.
Earlier today, in a vote that reflects the compromise, a key Senate budget subcommittee added $3 million for the county to a $26 million program of school construction in the coming year.