SNOW HILL — Funds for highway improvement projects are low or non-existent, according to Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials, who added that fees and taxes may need to be raised if Worcester County wants to see long-term projects completed.
Proposed by the Maryland Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding, some of the possible revenue boosters being considered include raising the fuel tax, increasing vehicle registration fees or hiking the titling tax, among other things.
“It’s an aggressive set of recommendations,” said MDOT Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley.
Without more revenue flowing in, however, Swaim-Staley told the Worcester County Commissioners Tuesday that many ongoing county projects like expanding Route 113 will be held up due to lack of capital.
“We all know we have far more needs than we ever have the money to pay for,” she said.
While members of the commission expressed disappointment over the lack of funds, some remarked that they weren’t surprised.
“I didn’t expect them to come down with buckets of money,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Still, Shockley confessed that he was hoping there would be more funds earmarked for the next phase of Route 113 construction.
Greg Slater, Director of Planning and Preliminary Engineering for the State Highway Administration (SHA), told the commission that there is only enough residual funding in the Route 113 account to do the very bare minimum of planning work for the next phase.
“I was a little surprised at that, I guess,” said Shockley, who had hoped Route 113 would be enough of a priority to keep money funneled into it.
Even with only minimal funding, however, Route 113 is in a better spot than many projects in Worcester. Work to expand Route 589 in Ocean Pines is at a stand-still after the commission rejected the state’s vision plan for the area, which would have invaded personal property by designating land for right-of-way usage. Even had the vision been approved, actual construction wasn’t slated to begin for more than two decades. With the vision being denied, it might take even longer than that to see any progress made.
“We really need time to make sure we have the right solution,” said Slater of Route 589. “It’s certainly not a challenge that’s going to go away.”
Other projects that lack appropriated funding include the bridge at Pocomoke and the Route 50 Bridge into Ocean City.
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw warned MDOT that the Pocomoke Bridge is not in ideal condition. SHA District Engineer Donnie Drewer explained that the best his office can do at the moment is maintenance on the bridge.
“I think we’ve got all the holes filled,” he said.
The Ruote 50 Bridge into Ocean City is another project that probably won’t get any attention for at least the next few decades.
“You’re telling me I have to live to be 100 to see this?” joked Commissioner Louise Gulyas.
Slater admitted that the bridge could use some attention but because it isn’t a safety hazard it’s towards the bottom of the state list. He went on to call it “functionally obsolete,” which means the bridge itself is fine structurally but not designed to deal with as much traffic as it does.
While the commission wasn’t happy to hear there isn’t much funding for projects in Worcester, Swaim-Staley pointed out that it wasn’t the only county feeling the economic crunch. According to MDOT, it would cost $12 billion just to finance every county’s top priority project.
“How do you get those funds in place and be fair to everyone … there are a lot of projects out there,” said Delegate Norm Conway.
The disparity of demand versus funding and how that can be fixed was something Conway touched upon when addressing the commission.
“Nobody wants to pay more in fuel taxes,” he said.
However, Conway noted that new solutions need to be found or progress will stop.
Swaim-Staley felt the same, and stressed that federal funding has been steadily declining for years, shifting more of the burden to the state and local levels.
“We’re never going to be at the place we were 20 years ago,” she said, reminding the commission that the federal government used to shoulder the lion’s share of a lot of the kind of projects the county is interested in.
Shockley acknowledged the need to bring in new revenue, but predicted any proposals to raise fuel taxes or registration fees will not go over well.
“There are all of these things floating out there about what to raise and how we’re going to raise it,” he said.
Shockley called it a “shotgun approach” and believes MDOT should focus on one plan to find funding at a time.
With the Bay Bridge toll increasing this year and the potential for gas prices to rise in the spring, Shockley cautioned MDOT to tread lightly when looking for more revenue.