Friday, July 3–Senator, Commissioners Discuss Local Issues

BERLIN – Senator Barbara Mikulski this week hosted a face-to-face meeting with the Worcester County Commissioners to discuss a wide variety of issues germane to the local area, from ongoing improvements to Route 113 and startling unemployment figures for the county to enhancements and additions to the local railroad system and the flow of federal stimulus dollars.

During the informal meeting at the Ocean Pines Library on Tuesday, Mikulski briefed the commissioners on several federal initiatives important to Worcester and fielded questions from the local elected officials on a variety of other issues. While the meeting was all over the map, literally and figuratively, there were certain key issues at the center of the discussion, most of which were intertwined with one another.

For example, the commissioners thanked Mikulski for her role in securing $2 million in new federal funding for the ongoing Route 113 dualization project. The latest phase runs from just south of Berlin to just north of Snow Hill, but the project relies on a steady influx of state and federal funding. County Commission President Louise Gulyas thanked Mikulski for her continued support and urged the senator to keep pushing for more.

“I hope to see more federal money to finish it,” said Gulyas. “I hope to see it finished before I die.”

Mikulski responded she would continue to push for more federal funding for the completion of Route 113 and all but assured Gulyas she would see it completed in one of the lighter exchanges during Tuesday’s meeting.

“It will be finished well before you die,” she said. “The point here is we don’t want anyone else to die out there. Route 113 and Route 404 are obsessions with Senator Cardin and myself, along with Congressman Kratovil. This is at the top of the Eastern Shore delegation’s request list. We’ve been at this a long time, but we think finishing it is within reach.”

The commissioners also asked Mikulski about the flow of federal stimulus dollars to the county. The senator urged local elected officials to be patient with regards to the funding despite their pressing needs.

“The stimulus funding is not coming through all at once, and there will be opportunities to access some of that money in the future,” she said. “Maryland got around $1.7 billion and we got something like $3 trillion in requests. More money from the stimulus package is coming to the states, but sorting out how best to spend it is taking some time.”

The commissioners also briefed Mikulski on the impacts of the recession on the local economy. For example, Commissioner Bud Church pointed out, while it is still early, the area appears to be struggling thus far.

“Ocean City is not having a really good year this year,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of big weekends – the Ocean City Air Show was fabulous – but there is reason for concern about how the rest of the season will go.”

Mikulski said she noticed what Church was talking about while traveling through the resort on Monday.

”We were commenting about how Coastal Highway had a serenity to it we were not accustomed to,” she said of her trip down the strip on Monday. “When people are cutting back, the first thing they do is cut discretionary spending. I suspect that’s what you’re faced with this year in Ocean City.”

Despite the spike in summer tourism-related jobs, Worcester County’s unemployment rate is still the highest in the state, Commissioner Judy Boggs pointed out to Mikulski. Boggs said the rate spiked to 17 percent in the winter, and even with the summer jobs, it still stood at around 15 percent.

“Quite frankly, I find that 15 percent figure stunning,” said Mikulski. “Fifteen percent is a very troubling, very disturbing number.”

Of course, not all of the discussion focused on the negative. Several positive issues were discussed including a groundbreaking initiative at NASA’s Wallops Island facility expected to create hundreds of jobs and infuse $250 million into the Lower Shore economy. There was also a discussion of the ongoing effort to expand high-speed Internet service across Worcester County and the Eastern Shore.

“In President Obama’s stimulus plan, there is money available for expanding broadband in rural areas,” said Mikulski. “The trick is getting it directed to the right projects. In other stimulus expenditures, the federal agency transfers the funds to the corresponding state agencies. For example, transportation funding flows from the federal Department of Transportation to the state Department of Transportation. Part of the problem is, there is no Department of Broadband.”

County officials also reached out to Mikulski to support a plan to expand and repair the existing railroad system in Worcester and create a new network of rail service including a spur to connect to the growing Wallops facility. Currently, a rail system runs up the spine of the county from Snow Hill to Frankford, Del., used largely to transport grain and feed for the poultry industry. County officials have a plan to expand to improve those lines while creating new ones, including a run connecting the existing southern terminus to Wallops for the transportation of the large rockets to be launched from the facility in the future.

Mikulski was generally supportive of the idea, but said she couldn’t attach her name to it until a firmer plan was developed.

“This is a big deal,” she said. “There is a question of who will own the railroad and who will maintain it. We’re talking about a lot of money. There has to be a demonstrative need. Wallops has to say they need it, then it goes to serving the national interest. I want to be supportive, but I need to have a hard, fast business plan in place first.”