Funding Bump Not Enough To Cool County’s Fears

SNOW HILL — Though a slight bump is expected this year, the Worcester County Commissioners still had harsh words for Annapolis regarding the condition of highway user funds.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office">

One commissioner with experience in the Roads Department also made troubling predictions for the county and the state of its highways.

Highway user funds are expected to increase by $31,301 in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget from the current fiscal year. However, compared to the millions Worcester used to receive as recent as five years ago, some on the commission said they are afraid the county won’t be able to keep roads in shape much longer.

“We haven’t been able to pave our roads. We’ve got 530 miles of road and 44 bridges to take care of in Worcester County,” said Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw. “And you certainly can’t do that on the funding that we’re receiving from the state.”

Lockfaw, a retired roads superintendent for Worcester, lamented the trickle of highway user funding compared to the levels where it used to be when he was in the field. After years of slashed funds, Lockfaw said that he is worried about the status of county roads in the immediate future.

“The county doesn’t have enough money to pick it up and pave 20 miles of road a year like we had been doing. It is definitely a problem,” he said. “I see where the roads are failing. I keep preaching to set more money aside and take care of this, but it’s no question our roads are going to fail very shortly.”

It’s not just roads and bridges being strained, according to Commissioner Virgil Shockley. The support system for those highways, especially equipment, has also been battered by stunted funding, he said.

“You’ve got trucks out there that have 300,000 miles on them. We haven’t replaced any of those trucks for three or four years now,” Shockley said.

Worcester used to receive around $5.2 million in highway user funds annually before FY09, but recent budgets have seen that number plummet. The most dramatic drop was from FY09 to FY10, when funds fell from $4.4 million to just $241,000.

Many lawmakers on the Eastern Shore have blamed state legislators for the huge loss, accusing them of raiding the transportation fund and hijacking local highway user funds for state projects. Many on the County Commission agree.

“Everybody drives the roads, everybody has to pay the upkeep on the roads and everybody in the county pays the damn gas tax, and [the state] basically robbed it. They didn’t wear a mask; they just went in and robbed it,” Shockley said.

Although more money is expected to be approved this year, Lockfaw and Shockley are not expecting to see funding levels from prior to FY10 return anytime soon.

“They just withheld it and you’ll never get it back,” said Shockley, adding that if a private business had acted in the same way the owners “would be behind prison bars.”

Lockfaw expects to see some of the funding restored but fears it will be routed to mass transit projects across the bay.

“I think that most of that money that they’re talking about it’s not going to come to the Eastern Shore it’s going to be used on the mass transit systems on the Western Shore,” he said, “and a lot of people aren’t even using that. I think that it’s foolish where [the state] is putting all of their eggs in one basket.”

Others on the commission were a bit more optimistic and tried to see the silver lining of any increase in funds, even if it is proportionally minor.

“There’s been an increase this year from last year but it’s still not what it was four or five years ago by a long-shot,” said Commissioner Jim Bunting. “Yeah, they’re robbing us but at least we did get an increase from last year.”

When asked if he ever expects to see Worcester receiving $5 million or more a year in highway user fees as it did prior to the recession, Bunting hedged his bets.

“I don’t think so, but I’m hoping we get back to something reasonable,” he said.

Several counties on the shore are feeling heartburn over the state’s treatment of highway user fees. A bill has been introduced in the current General Assembly, which will conclude in April, that would protect the highway user fund from being “raided” and diverted towards other projects. Among the sponsors of the bill are State Sen. Jim Mathias with Delegate Mike McDermott.

“The truth is, at least they’re now confessing how they’ve raided it to the point it is no longer sustainable,” McDermott said when the bill was introduced in January. “It’s now come down to just trying to maintain what we have without funding any new projects. There have been hundreds of millions of dollars diverted from the Transportation Trust Fund over the last few years to fill holes in the general fund.”

Also being discussed during the current General Assembly is the possibility of an increased gas tax, but it’s unclear if a portion of that new revenue will make it to Worcester if legislators approve it.