September 20, 2010

Officials, lobbyists defend Maryland’s roads against poor report card, but feel there are many improvements to make

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

State officials praise Maryland’s superior highway system, but the Reason Foundation just ranked it as one of the nation’s worst.

According to the libertarian policy group’s annual highway report, released earlier this month, Maryland’s roads come in 43rd place – followed only by Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, California, Alaska, and Rhode Island.

But state officials, policymakers and transportation advocates say this ranking is unduly harsh.

“The roads in Maryland are probably some of the best conditioned around,” said Sen. Ed DeGrange, chairman of the Senate’s Public Safety, Transportation and the Environment Subcommittee. “If you compare to the surrounding states – Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware – Maryland’s roads are in much better condition. Our issue here is wait time in traffic.”

Traffic congestion is one of the factors that the study’s author David Hartgen examined when he determined his rankings. He also looked at how smooth the roads are, the conditions of bridges, and the number of fatalities on the roads. Along with these factors, Hartgen looked at how many miles of roadways each state has, and how much was spent on them.

“We look at how much money was put in, and then what came out,” Hartgen said.

And, according to Hartgen’s report, in 2008 Maryland spent more than all but three states on each mile of roadway – and still had roadways with significant problems.

‘Things your mom wants to know’

Hartgen, a nationally recognized expert on transportation, has put together the highway report for 19 years. His report, he said, strives to find out “the things your mom wants to know” about road safety, and then see how well states are using money to remedy any problems.

To get his numbers and rankings, Hartgen looks at data compiled by each state and filed with the federal government. He looks at the funds spent on roads that year, then computes how much each state spent on each mile of its roads that year.

The study — apparently the only one of its kind — has its supporters. But it definitely has its detractors. Maryland, which often finds itself at the bottom of the rankings, is one of the most vocal, Hartgen said.

“Their comments right along the years we have done this study have been, ‘You can’t compare us with other states. We are different,’” Hartgen said. “I can’t accept that, and the people don’t accept that. There are a number of states out there with similar systems, and they do better.”

According to numbers submitted to the Federal Highway Administration – and used for Hartgen’s study — Maryland spent $2.17 billion on state-controlled roads in 2008. There are 14,671 miles of highway lanes in the state, meaning that Maryland spent $264,092 per highway mile that year. The national average, according to the report, was about a third of that — $77,130 per mile.  South Carolina, which spent the least per mile in the study, had just a fraction of the spending at $13,214 per mile.

So what did Maryland get for its money? Hartgen says not much. It has more urban interstate congestion than all but two states. Urban road conditions are the 39th best, while other principal roads are ranked as the 29th best. It has more deficient or functionally obsolete bridges than all but 19 states.

Considering the high cost spent on each mile and the relatively poor condition of Maryland’s roads, “43 is pretty good for where they are,” Hartgen said.

State officials disagree

Officials, policymakers and lobbyists all agree that Maryland’s roads are not perfect. But one of the nation’s worst systems?

“No, we definitely don’t agree with that,” said Valerie Edgar, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

She has two main points of contention. The first is that the report doesn’t give Maryland enough credit for all its miles of lanes. She said that the calculation used to determine lane width in the report cuts out a lot of the mileage Maryland has along its roads.

The second, she said, is exactly what state officials have been telling Hartgen for years: There is no simple comparison between Maryland and other states. On an average year, motorists drive about 58 billion miles on Maryland roads. Half of the Capital Beltway is located in Maryland. Baltimore has its own set of busy highways. And with its position on the East Coast, thousands of motorists heading to other places pass through the state each year.

“It costs a lot more money to maintain the Capital Beltway than it does for a podunk road in North Dakota,” Edgar said.

The state concentrates on making sure its roads are safe and well maintained, Edgar said. With so much traffic on the roadways – especially between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore – and winters that bring freezing temperatures, there is more work that has to be done here than other states. The roads are used more, she said, and winter brings potholes and snow removal. Plus, she said, roadwork often needs to be done at night so that there is minimal traffic disruption – something that costs more money.

“The bottom line is, if you spend money on your roads to maintain them, you will never do well on this report,” she said.

Traffic congestion, however, is indisputably a major problem in Maryland. According to statistics in the report, more than two-thirds of Maryland’s urban highways are congested during rush hour. Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, described the highway system through the Maryland suburbs between Baltimore and Washington as “a chokehold.”

The state is working on some projects that should alleviate congestion when they are completed. The Intercounty Connector, slated to be complete in late 2011, will link I-270 and I-95 – two heavily traveled roads that are only indirectly linked by the Capitol Beltway. Planned projects at I-95 will also cut down on some of the congestion.

James Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, said that none of these will be a panacea.

“I think we will see some relief when these are done, but how much? Our population in this area continues to grow,” Russ said.

How to improve Maryland roadways

Nobody – except Hartgen – said that Reason Foundation report should be a roadmap to improvement.

Instead, policymakers and lobbyists advocated a better and more secure funding plan to ensure that the needed improvements can be made.  When revenues fell and a budget shortfall was imminent, money to improve transportation was the first thing to be cut. And although Maryland received about $300 million in federal stimulus funds to spend on transportation, Russ said it did not improve the gap.

Now, Russ added, the entire nation is waiting for the next six-year reauthorization of federal transportation funds. Once those funds have been authorized, planning and work can take place. But the six-year funding plan has stalled in Congress.

“I feel bad for our transportation people,” Russ said, referring to the Maryland State Highway Administration. “They want to do the right things and they’re planning for the future. But they can’t do it because we don’t have an efficient process.”

DeGrange and Dinegar both said that a sustainable – and protected – source of revenue for the transportation trust fund needs to be found to ensure that some funds are there.

A new Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding is scheduled to hold its first meeting next week in Annapolis.

Created by legislature this spring, the commission is to review, evaluate, and make recommendations concerning State transportation funding sources. An interim report is due in January and a final report in November 2011.

According to a 2007 legislative staff report on transportation funding, the new blue ribbon panel is the eighth commission, task force or special committee to make recommendations on transportation funding since the gas tax was last raised in 1992.

DeGrange’s subcommittee has also been looking at increasing the gasoline tax, as well as adding a tax on hybrid vehicles that won’t use quite as much gas.

Transit issues need to be looked at comprehensively, Dinegar said. The main problem – which Dinegar sees as traffic congestion – has a multifaceted way to be addressed. Bypasses are good, but the state also has public transportation systems that could be better utilized. MARC trains could more directly interface with Virginia’s VRE commuter system, and Baltimore’s light rail ridership is extremely low.

Dinegar said that the Reason Foundation’s report is useful in that it shines a spotlight on some of the problems Maryland has with its roadways.

But Edgar said that people shouldn’t be overly concerned with it.

“People who live in Maryland should judge for themselves whether our roads are well maintained and safe,” she said.