Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Transit necessary for traffic woes, O’Malley says

Governor voices support for below-ground Purple Line, ponders a gasoline tax hike

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State leaders need the foresight to fund $40 billion in transportation needs statewide, and transit — including the Purple Line — has to be a big part of that, Gov. Martin O’Malley said Monday.

O’Malley (D) did not rule out increasing the state gasoline tax to pay for the $400 million to $600 million that state transportation officials say Maryland needs to spend each year to meet its transportation demands.

He spoke to Montgomery County transportation officials, elected officials and business leaders at an awards breakfast at the county’s conference center in North Bethesda honoring employers and residents who have promoted the use of transit, vanpools and other alternatives to driving to work alone.

The governor used the opportunity to call on county leaders to ‘‘go out and convince your neighbors of the importance of investing now” in transit, including the 14-mile Purple Line linking Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton on the Metrorail system.

Where to find the money remains one of the biggest questions in Annapolis.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach introduced a bill during this year’s legislative session to increase the state gasoline tax from 23.5 cents to 35.5 cents.

The gas tax is the single largest source of revenue for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, a pot of money used to pay for transportation projects that is separate from the state’s general fund.

The 12-cent increase proposed by Miller would add $406.7 million annually to the fund, according to legislative analysts.

O’Malley was noncommittal about the tax, telling reporters, ‘‘Stay tuned.”

‘‘You can touch off all kinds of debates with a gas tax,” he told people at the breakfast. ‘‘But I can tell you we’re already taxed more and more every month by the amount of time or the amount of money or by the number of hours spent more and more in traffic.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) on Monday reiterated his call for a gas tax increase, an idea he first floated years ago.

‘‘We still need it,” he told the audience.

Leggett was optimistic about the governor’s support.

‘‘‘Stay tuned,’ in my opinion, is a great move forward from where we were before,” he said.

Without a higher gasoline gas tax, Leggett said, the state ‘‘will not have money to fund the full range of [transportation] options.”

Those options must include intersection improvements that will allow the county to address added congestion due to the military’s base realignment process, which will expand the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Leggett said, and could add a half-million more annual trips on some of the county’s busiest roads.

Metro also must eliminate train turnarounds at the Grosvenor and Silver Spring stations, he said.

The state cannot address its transportation needs ‘‘simply in investing in roads alone,” O’Malley said. ‘‘We must invest in transit.”

O’Malley was careful not to discount the importance of the Intercounty Connector, the 18-mile, $2.4 billion highway linking Gaithersburg and Laurel.

The ICC will generate $7 billion for the state’s economy and 14,000 new jobs, including 8,000 in Montgomery County, O’Malley said.

Some people who support the Purple Line ‘‘see the ICC as antithetical,” O’Malley said. ‘‘It’s not antithetical. ... We need both for balance.”

The region has ‘‘one of the greatest Metro systems in the world,” he said. ‘‘But it will not continue to be the greatest if we don’t invest in our own time.”

He pledged to ‘‘advance the Purple Line,” which is envisioned as a light-rail line or a rapid transit bus line.

O’Malley said he prefers a subway system for the Purple Line, which has yet to receive federal approval. An ‘‘obsession” with above-ground lines and rapid bus service has ‘‘stymied the Red Line in Baltimore,” he said.

‘‘Can you imagine if people 30 years ago, 40 years ago, said, ‘We want a Metro system, but it has to be above ground and fast bus’?” he asked the audience. ‘‘What ... kind of region would we have?”

The Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway — a north-south connector along Interstate 270 between Gaithersburg and Frederick, ‘‘has to be part of our vision,” O’Malley said.

The Purple Line has already gained broad support from business and from the public.

Last month, student leaders at the University of Maryland, College Park wrote a letter to university President C.D. Mote Jr. urging administrators to reconsider their opposition to a street-level light-rail line on campus.

The county Planning Board on Thursday will vote on whether to authorize its staff to begin a Purple Line master plan study. The study would identify station locations and assess the project’s impact on the neighborhoods along the route. It would consider public input through an advisory group and a team of technical advisers.

The board would use the master plan as the basis for its discussion of a $30 million Maryland Transit Administration study that will examine ridership, environmental impact, routes and the mode of transportation. The administration is expected to complete the study by summer 2008.

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