Maryland's Transit Gap

January 14, 1991

Four years ago, as legislators were considering a 5.5 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax, administration officials predicted they would be returning in 1991 in search of additional tax dollars. The enormous cost of road-building, bridge repair and mass transit would gobble up the extra revenue by that time, they said. And sure enough, transportation leaders are back seeking another $1.5 billion in revenue enhancements.

This would translate into higher motor vehicle fees and a 6.5 cent rise in the gasoline tax, to 25 cents. A gubernatorial panel grappled with a number of ways to raise extra money -- including applying the state's 5 percent sales tax to gas -- and decided to let Gov. William Donald Schaefer determine the exact shape of the proposal. But no one on the panel denied that Maryland faces a crunch in its transportation program.

There just isn't enough money to undertake all the projects deemed worthy. The $1.5 billion in extra funds would only build one-seventh of the proposals on the Department of Transportation's drawing board. At the same time, the state's recession is hitting the Transportation Trust Fund hard: it has led to a $521 million gap between what DOT thought it could build last spring and cannot build now because of the precipitous plunge in motor vehicle tax receipts.

Adding to DOT's problem is the need for another $655 million to resurface existing highways, repair deteriorating bridge decks and replace aging rail and bus cars; $200 million to expand existing bus and rail service, rehabilitate maritime and airport facilities and improve railroad maintenance; and a whopping $2.8 billion to embark on new mass transit and highway projects over the next six years.

That totals $4.2 billion. Yet only $1.5 billion in extra money was recommended to the governor. This would be enough money to cover DOT's current revenue gap, take modest steps to maintain transit systems and embark on a few system expansions. There would be no money for new highways or major mass-transit additions.

Without this extra revenue, state transportation projects would grind to a halt for at least two years. Road repairs and bridge improvements would be shelved; commuter trains would remain overcrowded; traffic gridlock would multiply in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs.

DOT officials and the governor now have the formidable task of convincing state legislators that big hikes in the gasoline tax and in transportation fees are justified despite the recession. It is either that or calling a halt to future DOT projects. The options are stark -- and not very appealing.

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