Md. transit-issue gridlock awaits next secretary

December 02, 1990|By Doug Birch Peter Jensen of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

When the state's new transportation secretary sits down at his desk, sometime in the next few weeks, his job should be a snap -- once he clears a few small matters off that desk.

Let's see. First item: Win an increase in the gas tax and motor vehicle fees while oil prices soar. Then, nurse an ailing port back to health. Then, launch a few new multimillion-dollar mass transit projects and highways as Washington further slashes transportation aid.

Then the new secretary -- expected to be outgoing Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer -- should have time to clear up the question of whether the state should break up the Department of Transportation into three smaller agencies, as Gov. William Donald Schaefer is considering. And, of course, to decide whether and where the state should build a proposed $2 billion bypass of the Capital Beltway.

When Secretary Richard H. Trainor, 61, retires in the next few weeks, several state legislators and transportation professionals said, he will leave behind him an agency that bears some scars -- notably, the port's declining business and cost overruns associated with the Baltimore light-rail project -- but is basically in good shape.

They suggest that his successor will have to scramble to keep it that way.

In fact, some think one man or woman is not big enough for the job.

Governor Schaefer said two months ago that he was thinking of making two DOT agencies -- the Maryland Port Administration and the Maryland Aviation Administration, which runs Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- separate agencies reporting directly to him.

He is not expected to announce a decision on the issue until January. Meanwhile, he is getting a lot of advice.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said Friday that he thinks the seven agencies of the department, which together spend $2.1 billion per year, are too big and have roles too diverse for one person to handle all of them.

"There's an old adage that someone who tries to sit on too many chairs at the same time falls on the floor, and I think that's what's happened to Secretary Trainor," he said.

He said the port "continues to be in a state of disarray. There should be some one person accountable for management of this multibillion-dollar enterprise."

But some transportation pros oppose the plan, saying that would cut off the port from the financial safety net of the transportation trust fund.

After the agency's possible reorganization, almost everyone agrees, the most immediate issue the new secretary will face is ** money, or the lack of it.

"The situation is actually worse than anyone predicted," said William K. Hellmann, a former transportation secretary now with the engineering firm of Rummel, Klepper and Kahl.

Mr. Hellmann serves as chairman of the governor's 15-member Transportation Revenue Committee, which began meeting last month to consider increasing the state's 18.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax and other vehicle fees.

Since the gas tax doesn't rise with inflation, state officials expect have to look for additional revenue for the state transportation trust fund every five years or so.

Maryland government counts on its 5 percent new car titling tax to provide steadily rising income, since the price of cars rises with inflation. That tax is the trust fund's second biggest source of income, after federal aid and the state gas tax.

But over the past two years, new car sales have fallen and recently began plummeting, dragging the titling tax revenue down with them. In recent months, predictions of revenue from that source through fiscal 1996 have fallen $149 million.

Gasoline tax revenue is also expected to decline because of rising prices, although that hasn't happened yet.

In all, the department's five-year revenue estimates have fallen $521 million, meaning the state may not be able to build all the road and transit projects it has already planned. At the same time, transportation planners say, they could use an additional $4.1 billion for new roads and mass transit projects needed to keep up with the demand.

The Hellmann commission has just begun its deliberations. But it has already begun looking at proposals that include raising the state gasoline tax between a nickel and 10 cents a gallon, increasing the titling tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and raising registration fees from $27 to $35 -- or some combination of these.

But selling the voters and the General Assembly on higher gas taxes when the federal government is raising its gasoline tax and gas prices are at historic levels could prove difficult, legislators say.

Once that issue is resolved, the secretary will have to look at a host of more narrowly focused issues, transportation professionals said. Here are some of them:

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