Local leaders scraping for transportation money
Group wants state to re-evaluate road projects in pipeline
ANNAPOLIS As state transportation dollars go to fill budget holes instead of potholes, some politicians appear ready to take a potentially unpopular leap toward a tax increase. Still others are lamenting the lack of state support for road projects in recent years.
In response to Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to redirect $100 million from the already depleted Transportation Trust Fund, Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, (D-Dist. 15) of Germantown plans to file legislation by the end of today to boost revenue and protect the fund from future raids, a detrimental method of balancing the budget in recent years, county executives say.
Garagiola's proposal includes a gas tax increase of 8 to 12 cents, expected to generate $360 million in revenue. The gas tax, which stands at 23.5 cents per gallon, has not been raised since 1992.
Meanwhile, a report being released today by Smart Growth America and 1000 Friends of Maryland, an advocacy group focused on development issues, says the state needs to focus on re-evaluating transportation projects in its current pipeline before raising taxes.
"We are very, very clear that we'll only support increased funding if the system changes," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director for 1000 Friends of Maryland. "We're not going to support [raising more money] to support a broken system."
With the report came a survey of Maryland voters' feelings toward transportation in the state.
The 324 Maryland voters surveyed ranked traffic congestion, the condition of roads and bridges and the cost of getting around second in a list of serious problems in the state.
Transportation ranked below unemployment and the economy but above home foreclosures, poorly performing public schools, the environment and lack of parks and recreation space.
Last week, following the announcement of a coalition of business groups to fight for transportation dollars, Howard County Executive Kenneth Ulman (D) said he wants legislators to know the distress counties feel as they are unable to fix local roads.
"We understand the need to be at the table and part of the solution," Ulman said. "The biggest point I want to leave with people is this is significant pain for the counties."
Besides including a gas tax hike, Garagiola's legislation calls for an increase in vehicle registration fees and a constitutional amendment to lock the trust fund and keep its assets targeted toward transportation projects.
"There's been a decrease in revenues. We were able to backfill that with some of the federal stimulus dollars. That runs out. So the reason we need several hundred million is in large part just to maintain our system preservation," Garagiola said. "The road and the transit infrastructure, we've got a number of roads in poor condition now, and we've got projects that are backlogged in the billions with a b' of dollars."
According to a new study by TRIP, a national transportation research group based in Washington, D.C., 46 percent of the major roads in the Baltimore area are in poor condition, while 23 percent are in a mediocre state. In the Washington, D.C., suburbs 31 percent of major roads are rated as poor, while 29 percent are considered mediocre.
Created in 1971 as a dedicated source to support the Department of Transportation, the Transportation Trust Fund is required to maintain a $100 million balance. It is used to pay for bridge upkeep, highway maintenance, operating the Motor Vehicle Administration, the port and the airports, the transit administration and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Of the $100 million transferred out by O'Malley (D) this year, $60 million is set to pay for ongoing expenses, while the remaining $40 million will redirected to the state's rainy day fund. In the past three years, $2 billion has been pulled from the fund.
The Great Recession also is to blame for large declines in revenues from vehicle registration fees and fuel and titling taxes, Garagiola said. Those highway user fees fell from $1.7 million to $1.5 million between 2008 and 2010.
Highway user revenues, intended to finance local transportation projects, have been drastically cut in the past several years. Monies allocated to Howard were reduced by 97 percent, or $15.5 million, between fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2012.
Ulman lamented that Garagiola's bill will not restore any local funding this year.
"I have great respect for the senator and I think he's on the right track, but clearly from a county perspective we would like to see progress on the local share," he said.
In Harford County, where highway funds were cut by $16 million in that time, County Executive David Craig (R) said he is concerned about transportation money primarily being directed toward mass transit systems in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs. Two passenger train projects the Red Line and the Purple Line are planned for those regions. Each is expected to cost more than $1 billion. In September, O'Malley announced $90 million for engineering work on the projects.
"I do support trying to get [the transportation money] back in as much as possible, but when it comes to the gasoline tax, I don't see many delegates and many senators being supportive of it," Craig said.
The Maryland Association of Counties, of which Ulman is president, has yet to issue an opinion on a gas tax increase.
However, Michael Sanderson, the group's executive director, told legislators Tuesday that county leaders faced with needed road repairs have few options left other than raising taxes.
"I think there are a number of folks in the county community who recognize the connecting of dots between a great pie and a restoration of the local slice," Sanderson said.