Legislators consider raiding Transportation Trust Fund
As budget picture worsens, state finds fewer places to turn
ANNAPOLIS — After the latest round of state budget cuts the question on the minds of many Marylanders is, "What's next?"
The bad news is even tougher decisions may still lie ahead if the Board of Revenue Estimates predicts revenue declines of $1 billion or more, as projected, at its Sept. 17 meeting.
One line item potentially on the chopping block is the Transportation Trust Fund, an cut that some legislators believe may be inescapable in the current fiscal climate.
"Every year, we seem to take a little money from that dedicated fund and put it towards general operations," said Del. Tawanna P. Gaines during a transportation workshop at the recent Maryland Association of Counties conference.
The state transportation department tries to maintain about a $100 million balance in the trust fund at all times, but the exact number changes daily, agency spokesman Jack Cahalan said.
Maryland has so many highway infrastructure needs that it cannot afford to dip into the trust fund to address its day-to-day budget woes, said Del. Brian J. Feldman, who co-sponsored a bill during this year's legislative session to prohibit the taking of trust fund revenues.
"It's too tempting to tap that resource, which has long-term negative consequences for our economy and transportation infrastructure system," said Feldman (D-Dist. 15) of Potomac. "Many states put in walls to prevent government from doing it."
Earlier this year, the General Assembly slashed local highway user revenues by $160 million. On Wednesday, the Board of Public Works approved Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to take away another $159.5 million for local road maintenance projects.
That leads Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr. (D-Dist. 12A) of Arbutus to believe that the trust fund is safe for now. "I think anything's possible, but I'd think [O'Malley] would steer clear of that for the time being."
If anything, the state should invest more in upgrading roads, rather than viewing such pots of money as a spigot, said Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner, who supports a modest increase in the gasoline tax to pay for transportation improvements.
"There is an increment there if we had the political courage to seize upon it that could fund a transportation system worthy of our state and of its citizens," said Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac. "We do not have that today and it is a fundamental obligation of government to provide it."
Major projects in Montgomery County alone — the Intercounty Connector, Purple Line Metro and Corridor Cities Transitway light rail or bus rapid transit line — will cost billions of dollars that the state does not have, Berliner said.
And the needs for both highway and mass transit go far beyond Montgomery. Some believe there should be separate dedicated sources of money for transit and roads since rural residents don't utilize transit and don't feel their taxpayer money should fund it, said Gaines, who chairs the House Transportation and Environment Subcommittee.
"I have to look at transportation in a global way," she said.
The political consequences would also be harmful. Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) was roundly criticized when he raided the trust fund in 2003 and Republicans would surely pounce if O'Malley (D) did so now.
"I think it's very disingenuous to take federal stimulus dollars for transportation and use it for maintenance projects such as traffic barriers and resurfacing and then turn around and take the money out of the back door of the Transportation Trust Fund while nobody's looking," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby.
And although there's precedent, taking money away from the trust fund without a plan for how it would be reimbursed would send a dangerous signal about the state's priorities, said Gaines (D-Dist. 22) of Berwyn Heights.
"I don't think you can look at it as a pot of gold that you can just draw on," echoed House Appropriations Chairman Norman H. Conway (D-Dist. 38B) of Salisbury.
But the weak economy has put the state in a position where nothing can be ruled out, said Del. Galen R. Clagett (D-Dist. 3A) of Frederick
"I think there would be a hue and cry, but the bottom line is everybody has to share in this problem and this ain't your average recession," he said.
Staff Writer Sean R. Sedam
contributed to this report.