Unless legislative leaders change their minds, Maryland's road-building and modernization program could be seriously delayed. By turning down a gas-tax increase and higher motor vehicle fees, lawmakers have left officials with no choice but to shut down all new projects except for repair work to preserve the system. Suburban commuters will be most severely impacted.
Nowhere will this no-new-projects edict hurt more than in gridlocked Montgomery County. Yet the county's own legislators never lifted a finger to help the administration in its quest to raise motor vehicle fees. Instead, Ways and Means Vice Chairman Gene Counihan and Budget and Taxations Chairman Laurence Levitan helped wield the hachets. Montgomery commuters, take note.
The Department of Transportation's revenue picture is bleak, and could grow worse. Tax money in February was $7 million below the department's modest predictions. If tax receipts keep falling, and with no additional revenue from higher license fees, the department's bare-bones maintenance program might have to be curtailed, too.
Even worse, the shrunken road-building program will almost surely prolong Maryland's recession. Instead of using transportation projects to prime the construction industry's economic pump -- creating jobs and higher tax receipts -- legislators are forcing a retrenchment. The General Assembly is making matters worse, not better.
In the Baltimore area, project postponements could include Route 100 in Anne Arundel County, interchange construction at Interstate 83 and Beaver Dam Road in Baltimore County, projects along U.S. 1 in Baltimore County and work on Howard County's congested U.S. 29. Overcrowded commuter-rail cars will stay that way. Projects to make the Port of Baltimore more competitive will be shelved.
There could be a two-year delay in starting transportation projects. Next year, legislators will be confronted by the same problems, only they will be more severe -- and the proposed remedies will be more costly.
There is still time for legislative leaders to take another look at the transportation department's requests. Increasing motor vehicle fees is not only sensible, but overdue: some of these fees have not been changed in half a century! If these new fees were approved, DOT could at least begin work on road-widening and road improvements as well as expanding capacity on commuter rail lines.
It is time General Assembly leaders stopped hiding behind their "no new taxes" shield. Let's get on with improving Maryland's transportation network. Not only will this provide a much-needed boost for the economy, it will give suburban commuters some well-deserved relief and make Maryland more appealing for business development.