With the 2013 General Assembly session lurking on the horizon, it is imperative that state lawmakers give more than the usual lip service to Maryland’s transportation needs. Budget analysts have warned that the state transportation funding situation looks bleak — once again.
Voicing the concerns of their beleaguered members, the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties have made restoring highway user revenues, which have been slashed to the tune of almost $1 billion in recent years, a top legislative priority.
Yet, it seems highly unlikely that the city of Frederick will see a marked increase in the highway user fees it needs to repair deteriorating local roadways or Frederick County will get the $169 million it wants next year to help relieve congestion and improve safety on the area’s busy highways — at least according to pessimistic state transportation officials.
For the city, highway user fee revenue has declined sharply since 2007, when it received $3.05 million from the state. That dropped to about $301,000 in fiscal 2012 and to about $430,000 this year.
Meanwhile, the Frederick County Board of Commissioners’ wish list includes $82.3 million for a new interchange at U.S. 15 and Monocacy Boulevard; $1 million for the construction of a $30.9 million interchange at Interstate 70 and Meadow Road; and another $4.9 million to design the widening of a stretch of Buckeystown Pike.
But there is just no state money for new road projects, so the commissioners — who were to make their perfunctory pitch for state transportation funding this week — are hitting up developers to foot the bill if they want to build anything in the county.
“We’re not sitting around, we’re coming up with ways and concepts [to pay for the roads]. We’re not waiting for the state,” Commissioner’s President Blaine R. Young (R) said.
Such alternative thinking may become a necessity for the forseeable future.
Analysts from the Department of Legislative Services told members of the joint Spending Affordability Committee earlier this month that some funding projections for fiscal 2013-2018 by the state Department of Transportation were overly optimistic.
Analyst Jonathan Martin told committee members that options such as public-private partnerships or regional sales or motor fuel taxes should be on the table.
Earlier this year, the Joint Legislative and Executive Commission on Oversight of Public-Private Partnerships, chaired by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, said that, realistically, 6 percent to 10 percent of the state’s annual capital budget, or up to roughly $315 million, could be financed through such partnerships. But that still would leave a large funding void.
The November 2011 final report of the Maryland Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding, which was pretty much ignored, estimated the state needs an additional $870 million annually in new transportation revenues just to meet current needs.
The commission report recommended increasing the state’s gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised in two decades, by 15 cents per gallon over three years.
Even though Gov. Martin O’Malley hasn’t decided whether to reintroduce a gas tax proposal this year (he favored adding the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline earlier this year), raising the gas tax is sure to come up in the General Assembly session.
Also likely to get another airing is a proposal to put the state’s oft-raided Transportation Trust Fund in a lockbox. Last session, 22 state senators proposed a constitutional amendment to that effect.
However, what the various proposals, warnings, suggestions, recommendations and hand-wringing exercises suggest more than anything is that next year’s legislative session is finally the time for Maryland’s lawmakers to make a firm commitment to address the state’s substantial transportation infrastructure needs.
The lockbox proposal and what it means — no more raids on the Transportation Trust Fund — is a good starting point.