Light rail's price rises $43 million Md. officials lobby for gas tax increase

November 28, 1990|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- The price of the Baltimore light-rail project, already plagued by cost overruns, has risen another $43 million because the state will have to borrow more of the money needed to build it, state transportation officials told a Senate committee yesterday.

The added financing costs bring the total price of linking Hunt Valley and Glen Burnie with a new rail network to $489 million. That is 69 percent more than the $290 million the project was supposed to cost when the General Assembly approved it in 1988.

In a separate meeting later yesterday, Department of Transportation officials had more bad news. They told a panel studying a possible state gas tax increase that transportation's share of the current 18.5-cents-a-gallon state gasoline tax, vehicle titling tax and corporate income tax will fall by $310 million over the next 5 1/2 years due to rising oil prices.

Earlier, the news that the cost of the 27-mile light-rail system had risen again drew barbed comments from several members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

"We were sold a bill of goods initially on one price, and every time we turn around we see the cost going up," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, committee chairman.

"We've had it stuck in our ear for the umpteenth time, and I for one am getting sick of it," said Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel.

But legislators noted that they could not block or modify the financing scheme. The borrowing to help finance the project is being done bythe Maryland Transportation Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that runs the state's toll bridges, tunnels and highways.

While legislators can cut the budgets of state agencies, the Transportation Authority, which uses toll revenue to finance its budget, has independent power to raise, spend and borrow money.

The seven-member authority, led by retiring Transportation Secretary Richard H. Trainor, voted unanimously to borrow the money for the light-rail project.

Stephen Zentz, deputy secretary of transportation, denied that the department pressured the authority.

Mr. Zentz conceded, though, that "we may suggest funding alternatives to them."

When the cost for the light-rail line was estimated at $446 million earlier this year, transportation officials announced they would borrow $75 million from the Transportation Authority over three years to help pay for it.

But a fiscal analyst for the legislature reported yesterday that the Transportation Authority had overestimated revenue and underestimated costs by $48 million over the next five years.

As a result, the authority can't afford to lend the money to the light-rail project. So it will borrow $78 million in fiscal 1991 by issuing 15-year bonds. The Department of Transportation will repay the principal and interest on the loan by 1995 -- after the Schaefer administration leaves office.

Frederic J. Barron, finance director for the authority, estimated the cost of interest on those bonds at $43 million over the 15 years.

Last night, at the governor's gas tax panel, transportation officials said that the state needs $4.1 billion in new revenue over the next six years to meet all its transportation needs.

That would translate into a 32-cents-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax, assuming that was the only source of new revenue.

Several legislators on the panel chided transportation planners for asking for too much. "The kids nowadays have an expression: Get real," Senator Cade said. Questioning whether the $4.1 billion figure represented "a reasonable statement of need," he advised, "It's time to get in contact with reality."

William K. Hellman, the state's former transportation secretary and chairman of the gas tax panel, asked the Transportation Department to return next week with spending plans for 1991-1996 that presented four options: no spending increase; a $500 million revenue increase; a $1 billion spending increase; and a $1.5 billion spending increase.

Light-rail costs

November 1987 -- Light-rail line proposed from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie. Total project cost:

$290 million.

December 1988 -- Pennsylvania Station spur added.

$316 million.

November 1989 -- Cost overruns throughout project announced.

$468.6 million.

February 1990 -- Project scaled back to reduce cost overrun.

$446.3 million.

November 1990 -- Refinancing of cost overruns announced.

$489 million.

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