Funding to expand I-81 in Maryland has been cut by the state

December 19 – Massive budget cuts in the state of Maryland will affect Hagerstown in a big way. 

The proposed $100 million for Interstate 81 construction in former Governor Larry Hogan’s budget has been slashed by Governor Wes Moore in an effort to tackle short falls in the state budget. 

The news in the beginning of December sent shockwaves through Washington County and means the second phase on the widening of I-81 will no longer be state funded. 

Jim Kercheval, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, said, “There’s about $70 million of that money for the construction of phase two, which takes us from Williamsport to Halfway Boulevard. We’ve been working for that money for literally decades, had the money approved in last year’s General Assembly when they adopted the CTP and then MDOT came and made some changes and adjustments this year and pulled quite a bit of road projects, about $430 million of road projects got pulled out of the budget. They talk about the shortfall revenue with gas tax and things like that and all that is true. We’re struggling with it. But what this really was was a move of a lot of road projects into transit projects. So some of the summaries they have really are a little misleading exactly what the reasoning was. I know we have financial revenue challenges we’re kind of working with. I’m on the one train commission trying to handle the shortfalls in gas tax revenue. But this was something a lot different.”

Cuts were also made to grants that go to transit companies. 

Kercheval said, “We’re still trying to work out what the details are but last I heard that our county commuter service may lose 40% of its revenue. That’s going to be really difficult for the folks that depend on that to get back and forth to work. We have a kind of a smaller scale, what I call a tier three level transit system, bus system in Washington County. It’s certainly not the same transit system that’s in Baltimore, DC areas, those types of things, but the bus service does provide some much needed transportation for those that don’t have vehicles. The loss of that 40% is going to be painful, just as well as the loss of the I-81 money.”

Where are the local lawmakers in all of this? 

Kercheval said, “I talked to Congressman Trone’s office. He was pretty upset with a lot of things. Actually of the road projects being cut I believe four of them are in his district. So I know he is pretty fired up over some things as well. A lot of this has to do with operating fees. It’s one of the deals where they talked about they’re going to be taking these 8% cuts, but when you look at their own materials they put out, their operating fees are actually going up quite a bit and a lot of that they attribute to the additional cost of contract work as well as the additional labor cost and wage cost that MDOT had to put in place for their systems. The main transit, they lost over a third of their people dropped during COVID that have not come back. They’ve continued to operate in these massive losses. There was some federal COVID money that was put in to help balance their operating budgets. Now that that’s dried up, they basically are using money derived from driver’s gas tax to supplement the transit riders in the Baltimore DC area. So that took up a big chunk of the funds.”

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “Elections have consequences and here we are. These unfunded mandates, these pressures that they’re putting on, are finally coming to roost here with that amazing shortfall in the budget and more shortfalls projected. I keep going back to thinking about all that money that was set aside for that expansion on that stretch of road, that meant meals, that meant payroll, that meant a lot of a lot of things. I’m thinking that the neighborhood is going to be in better shape. There’s going to be jobs, it’s brought back to life. There’s so many things that come out of that project and what is going to be lost on the projects that you’re rattling off here is pretty immense.”

Kercheval agreed, “The thing that sticks out to me most is just plain old lives. I mean people are dying on I-81. If you look back the last three years, we’ve lost, I think it was eight fatalities there, including three teen drivers that were killed on I-81. A couple of those were truck related crashes. The three years prior to that, we only lost one. That’s I think a sign of the increased traffic, truck traffic that’s coming on all of our highways with the expansion of E commerce.”

In fact, reports have shown that truck traffic on Interstate 81 is expected to go up 54% over the next 15 years. 

Kercheval said, “We see that as kind of probably a low guess when you look at the number of square footage of warehouses planned in the region from Chambersburg down to Winchester, all those trucks are going to be on I-81 going north and south. We lose almost three people a year on I-81 from crashes here the last three years. That’s our average. So anything that delays the additional lane on I-81, which really changes the whole design and makes it much easier for trucks to kind of stay in the middle lane and then allows the 10 exits that are on the 12 miles of 81 people coming on to the exits to merge into the right lane that hopefully won’t have as many trucks in it once this expansion project gets done. I don’t know how you really claim safety’s the number one issue for MDOT. They’ve been claiming that now for years and still promote that and even in their supplementary report that talks about the cuts, they say how safety is going to be the major impact but I-81 is one of the most unsafe highways in the state of Maryland and now we were dropped in exchange for transit. So rural counties, rural Maryland really, really took a hit with these cuts. There’s tax policy involved around using user fees and some of that’s really good, but when the drivers kind of pay their own way. I mean they cover 100% of the road costs. The driver’s gas tax, even though it’s dropping, is more than enough to cover all operating, all the maintenance and capital for road projects. The problem is they’re pulling big chunks of that away and moving into the transit system because it’s constantly losing money. It’s a negative loss. You know what it’s like for business. If you have a mode of transportation that’s losing money and their response to a struggling budget is to add two more major rail lines, transit lines, which will lose more money for the state that are going to have to be supplemented and it looks like it’s going to be by drivers right now and then eliminate road projects, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” 

Wes Decker, Communications Officer with the City of Hagerstown, said, “I couldn’t believe that it was done in the fashion that it was done. Certainly I have no hand in it one way or the other but just as a concerned citizen, as a person who’s lived here my entire life, knowing that finally we had gotten some movement in the right direction from a financial support standpoint, and then to hear it all go away is extremely disappointing to say the least, especially when you consider the number of lives that have been lost on Interstate 81. That you would think that with some of this progress being made with widening 81, things of that nature that have been discussed that we would be in a much better place and now all of a sudden that goes away in a big, big hurry. Very distressing.”