Empty Cupboard

December 14, 1990

Suddenly, the cupboard at Maryland's Department of Transportation is bare. Changes in driving habits since the Persian Gulf crisis and the onslaught of the economic recession have sent revenues tumbling. DOT now finds itself with a projected deficit of $205 million over the next 18 months and $521 million over the next six years. A gas-tax increase seems inevitable.

What might have been the most appealing option -- delaying all road and transit projects until revenues rebound -- is out of the question. Such a course would cripple Maryland's economy at the worst possible time. Lopping off $200 million in transportation projects would decimate a large segment of Maryland's construction industry and ripple through the state economy. It is the wrong approach for government to take.

Still, Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- already facing a $423 million deficit in the rest of state government -- had little choice but to halt all new DOT construction contracts for the next month. Now is the time to preserve the department's cash and reevaluate projects approved for construction. That won't be nearly enough, though, to cover the yawning revenue gap.

Demand for road improvements, bridge replacements, mass-transit systems, airport expansion and port modernization far outstrips the state's ability to pay. Unmet transportation needs total $11 billion. The department has an $8.5 billion priority list. Yet the state expects to collect only $4.4 billion in DOT revenues through 1996.

State legislators and the governor have to decide exactly what they are willing to pay for in terms of transportation. Do they want enlarged roadways in congested suburban areas? Do they want to replace antiquated bridges? Do they want to pursue mass transit? Do they want expanded commuter-rail lines? Do they want an aggressive road resurfacing program?

If the answers are yes, it will mean a nickel in higher gas taxes just to complete previously approved projects. If the answers are no, then Marylanders had better get used to deteriorating roadways, growing gridlock, inadequate mass transit and delayed maintenance work that could prove costly in future years.

These are not appetizing choices. But legislators knew a year ago the transportation trust fund was running short of cash. They intentionally ignored the problem because of the fall elections. Now the recession has turned a minor cash crunch into a major funding crisis -- and a pounding political headache for state legislators.

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