Bleak tax-revenue receipts from car and gasoline sales threaten to plunge Maryland's transportation program into a prolonged crisis. The widening revenue gap could make it impossible for state officials to sign new contracts for bridge replacements, road resurfacing or even safety improvements over the next 18 months. Some $1.2 billion in projects will be put on indefinite hold.
Despite the denials of House legislative leaders, this crisis is very real. Department of Transportation revenue figures from February speak for themselves. Receipts are off $20 million in the year to date, which reduces the amount of money the state can borrow for road projects. Even worse, there isn't enough money to match federal interstate funds. The loss of federal road-building money could reach $420 million.
Even worse, if this tax revenue decline persists, highway and bridge projects already under way may have to be halted or canceled. The state will simply stand by and watch Maryland's transportation network deteriorate.
Legislators and the governor don't seem interested in finding a solution. Gov. William Donald Schaefer this week sought to divert $76 million in transportation money for social programs in his general-fund budget. That move, coupled with the ballooning revenue gap, would have left the DOT in shambles. It was strictly a political ploy to embarrass the legislature. Lawmakers were right to reject it out of hand.
Legislative leaders haven't covered themselves with glory, either. Their stubborn refusal to approve either a higher gasoline tax or higher motor vehicle fees ignores the reality of DOT's predicament. If there's not enough money coming in to pay for new road and bridge work, state officials have no choice but to suspend all future projects.
There is still time left for lawmakers to come up with additional funds to keep Maryland's road repair activity moving along. Higher motor vehicle fees would at least permit maintenance and preservation projects to continue. It also would raise enough money for the state to match federal interstate funds.
But much-needed expansion of Maryland's clogged road network, its commuter-rail lines, its mass-transit routes, its ports and its airports would still be stalled. It would take a substantial gas-tax increase to solve that problem, something legislators are unwilling even to consider this year.
The No. 1 priority for House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller should be finding the cash to keep this state's transportation preservation and repair work on schedule. Failure to act affirmatively would be a black mark on the legislature -- and a step backward for Maryland's transportation network.