BERLIN — The Lower Shore’s delegation in Annapolis had a candid sit-down with Gov. Martin O’Malley last week to discuss a wide variety of issues germane to the region, including the eventual completion of Route 113 and the possibility of adding a toll at the Maryland line to help pay for the improvements.
Lawmakers from across the Eastern Shore met with O’Malley last week to discuss tourism, agriculture, poultry, small business and the major ongoing road construction projects in the region. Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) said similar meetings with the governor have been conducted in the past, although local legislators went into the annual session this year with a specific plan in mind.
“We said let’s be proactive and go over there with an agenda,” he said. “I feel like it was a very productive meeting and we’re moving in a positive direction. Most of our fundamental heartbeat values, tourism, poultry, agriculture, small business, are all under tremendous stress in this economy. We had a very open and candid discussion on all of those issues.”
Among the issues discussed was the eventual completion of the Route 113 dualization in Worcester County. The project has been going on piecemeal for several years and has been repeatedly stalled over funding issues.
Delegate Mike McDermott said this week the governor acknowledged the lagging funding available for the completion of the project, but said there was little money available under current budget restraints for the next phase.
“We discussed the road funding for the shore, specifically Routes 404 and 113,” he said. “We realize there is no money for these roadways to be completed in a timely manner.”
McDermott said he took the opportunity of a face-to-face with the governor to advance his somewhat novel approach to funding the completion of Route 113 and other stagnant projects on the shore.
“I have been floating the idea of creating a one-way toll at the Delaware line for Route 404 and Route 113 as a means of allowing these projects to move forward immediately,” he said. “The dedicated toll funding would ensure the projects continued until completion and not be delayed. Minus this type of funding, these roads will remain congested and unsafe for our citizens. The governor seemed agreeable and we will be having this discussion over the coming months to determine if it is feasible.”
Mathias said the rural counties often contribute the most to the state’s transportation trust fund in terms of gas tax, but don’t always get a great return on the money.
“At some point, it has to come to a boil,” he said. “Because of the rural nature of our districts, because we generally have to drive farther than most, we pay more than our share of the gas tax, but it seems to go away. We have to find a way to make sure the money comes back to the rural areas.”
Another issue discussed during the meeting with the governor was the growing number of Eastern Shore residents on the unemployment rolls. Because of the seasonal nature of most of its rural industries, the unemployment rates on the shore typically outpace the percentages in the more urban and suburban areas, according to Mathias.
“Even in good times, the Eastern Shore has the distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the entire state because of the seasonal nature of our industries,” said Mathias. “Most of our workers are engaged in tourism-related business, agriculture, poultry, construction and trades. During the best of times, those industries see a high rate of seasonal unemployment, but the problem is even greater in these economic times. The governor said he is aware of our issues and we had a very open dialogue about it.”