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In Prince George’s County, your gas tax dollars at work

SUITLAND — Gov. Martin O’Malley and other elected officials came here Monday to talk up a few long-languishing transportation projects now on the move, apparently thanks to a new state tax on gasoline.

Branch Avenue

State officials have pledged $50M to build an access road to the Branch Avenue Metro Station, part of $650M in public works announced Monday for Prince George's County. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

They left having detailed $650 million in money dedicated to public works across Prince George’s County, unloading some items from a project queue that new Department of Transportation Secretary James T. “Jim” Smith Jr. said was backlogged by the agency’s years of fiscal insolvency.

There’s “a pent-up demand” for projects to ease congestion, he said — especially in the Washington suburbs — and elected officials from the area were eager to celebrate funding for a $150 million interchange at Route 4 and Suitland Parkway, a $50 million access road to Branch Avenue Metro Station and $46 million to improve bike lines and pedestrian paths across the county.

“This is … clear evidence of where your tax money is going,” Smith said.

In a news conference outside the Metro station, O’Malley, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and others said 4,000 jobs would be created by the construction projects — some of which are expected to start breaking ground in 2014.

The largest chunk of the $650 million total will be $280 million to pay for land acquisition and final design for the light rail Purple Line. Construction of the 16-mile, east-west track between New Carrollton and Bethesda would not begin until 2015 at the earliest. The project is vying for federal money to help pay for building costs.

“We’re very confident that the Purple Line is an attractive and needed project in Maryland,” O’Malley said, adding that ridership was “clearly there.”

One of the smallest items on the list may have been among the most important to local and state elected officials. The state has earmarked $7 million to design a full interchange on the Capital Beltway at the Greenbelt Metro Station.

Officials hope to persuade the federal government to move FBI headquarters to Greenbelt.

Baker said the interchange improvement — replacing the existing partial interchange, which only allows southbound drivers access to the station and doesn’t allow those drivers leaving the station to return to Interstate 495 southbound — would be critical to persuading the FBI to move to Greenbelt.

Another $71 million would be needed to acquire property and build the interchange once design is complete, according to a project description provided by MDOT.

“We are very excited about competing for the FBI headquarters,” Baker said.

Officials hope projects that should enhance access to both Metro stations spur private development of the surrounding land. Transit-oriented developments are seen by some as a way to ease highway congestion.

“I think these investments are critical in order for these TOD sites to grow,” Baker said.

The state also allocated $5 million to study connecting Waldorf in Charles County to the Branch Avenue Metro Station through light rail or bus rapid transit. The 19-mile transit line could include 11 stations and would help the more than 60 percent of Charles residents who commute outside of the county for work, officials said.

The Transportation Trust Fund balance dwindled in recent years, leaving only enough money to pay for maintenance of existing roads, highways, bridges and transit in the state. New projects were put on the backburner as legislators avoided voting for a tax increase.

But a phased-in gas tax increase was approved by the General Assembly this year — the first in the state since 1992 — and has infused the account with money.

A new sales tax added more than 3 cents to a gallon of gas on July 1 and could add another 8 cents by July 2016. The legislature also tied Maryland’s existing 23.5-cent fuel excise tax to inflation, meaning it could potentially rise every year.