Barry Rascovar: Can’t keep pushing transportation down road -- Gazette.Net


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When, oh, when will the powers in Annapolis face up to Maryland’s growing, unmet transportation needs?

When will Gov. Martin O’Malley make increased revenue for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund his top priority and fight hard to gain passage?

When will House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller take the lead in providing relief for Maryland’s Department of Transportation, which has been on a starvation diet for two decades?

The three met Thursday to discuss the next legislative session, which starts in January. Yet, if history is any guide, the odds of them doing whatever it takes to push through a transportation tax increase aren’t good.

Every year this same situation confronts legislators and the governor, and every year they have avoided the tough decisions.

Even when O’Malley called a recession-era special session in 2009 to balance the state’s general fund budget with new taxes, he backed away from hiking the gasoline tax to support the state’s transportation agency.

Too controversial. Too much visceral opposition.

As a result, Maryland’s rickety transportation jalopy is close to running on fumes. The Department of Legislative Services says within five years there won’t be enough money for anything except patching worn-out highways.

“The outlook and the situation for the trust fund are quite grave,” says Warren Deschenaux, the legislature’s chief policy analyst. Indeed, his agency figures the state is about $2 billion short of the money it needs to undertake projects currently approved.

That doesn’t include the big-ticket items such as widening the Capital Beltway ($5.8 billion); replacing the narrow and antiquated Harry W. Nice Bridge connecting Southern Maryland to tidewater Virginia ($885 million); building the mass-transit Purple Line ($1.9 billion) in the Washington suburbs and the Red Line ($2.2 billion) in Baltimore; widening Md. 5 in Prince George’s County near Clinton ($1.1 billion), and building the Corridor Cities Transitway rapid bus system in Montgomery County ($828 million).

O’Malley, Busch and Miller have yet to set aside one dollar to pay for these costly but essential projects. This is leadership?

Eighteen months ago, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation, led by Montgomery County attorney Gus Bauman, concluded that the state’s highways program was “on the verge of financial collapse unless action is taken now to change course.”

The response from O’Malley and legislators earlier this year was less than encouraging. The governor promoted an unrealistic plan to add a 6 percent sales tax on gasoline. Lawmakers, meanwhile, did what they’re best at when it comes to increasing transportation revenue — nothing.

Will things change in January?

O’Malley knows this may be his best, last chance. He gained valuable political points by getting controversial laws on referendum approved by voters. That will help as he argues his case with legislators. Meanwhile, the state’s economy is improving. October saw the biggest jump in private-sector hiring in 15 years, and the state’s general fund deficit is abating for the moment.

Business leaders are making increased transportation revenue a prime objective in the 2013 General Assembly session. So are rural lawmakers. But will legislators from the Baltimore and Washington regions support higher taxes so that critical road and transit projects can be built?

The governor knows his power to influence decisions will fade in another year when he starts his final 12 months in office. Before he feels the effects of “lame duck-ism” he had better accomplish something in transportation to avoid a black eye.

Raising the gas tax has been viewed as wildly unpopular. Yet Maryland’s levy of 23.5 cents per gallon — unchanged in 20 years — is substantially below the national average (33.4 cents). Volatile jumps in the pump price of gas now are so common that few even notice anymore.

The public today probably would be far more accepting of a gas-tax rise than politicians think. But state lawmakers continue to run scared when it comes to the dreaded T-word, especially with their re-election around the bend in 2014.

There are other alternatives under consideration but most won’t garner enough legislative support, such as a regional transportation tax, more toll roads or sticking local governments with the cost of new road projects.

Only in Montgomery County do elected officials seem ready to take on a greater tax burden to ease congestion. Unfortunately, that kind of political courage is in short supply elsewhere.

Besides, transportation needs are statewide and should be dealt with on a statewide basis.

Unless Annapolis leaders come up with transportation solutions, Maryland’s economic growth could quickly fade. Gridlock on the I-270 corridor, for instance, might get so severe that Maryland companies start looking in Virginia and Pennsylvania for sites with less congestion and more livable environments.

The coming General Assembly is the ideal time to finally confront Maryland’s glaring lack of vital highway, bridge and mass transit construction. The question is whether top State House leaders have the gumption to make it happen over the next four months.

Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.