Revenue drop may halt road construction

March 27, 1991|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- An unexpected plunge in revenue for Maryland's cash-starved Transportation Trust Fund could force the state to suspend all new road and transit construction for the next 15 months, the state transportation secretary said yesterday.

And Secretary O. James Lighthizer said the budget squeeze could also lead to the loss of from $150 million to $420 million in federal interstate highway money.

At a news conference yesterday morning, Mr. Lighthizer blamed the revenue slump on a sharp drop in fees, particularly titling taxes, because of faltering auto sales amid the recession.

He said the lower revenue and lost borrowing power could cost the state Department of Transportation $80 million earmarked for new projects through June 1992.

Much of that money is needed to match federal interstate highway grants, which pay between 75 percent and 90 percent of the cost of a project.

"The transportation system in this state will no longer be on hold," he told reporters. "It's really in a process of disintegration."

But it was unclear yesterday whether the latest gloomy budget predictions would be enough to turn around foes of higher transportation taxes and fees -- particularly House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.

With Mr. Mitchell's blessing, the House last week killed the Schaefer administration's effort to raise $1.5 billion over five years by sharply raising the state gas tax and motor vehicle fees.

Yesterday, Mr. Mitchell said he didn't know whether to believe the latest budget predictions.

Mr. Lighthizer presented the bad news to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee during a hearing yesterday afternoon.

Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, later predicted that the General Assembly would react to the Transportation Department's latest budget squeeze by passing a bill to raise more than 100 motor vehicle fees, which could net about $48 million a year. Any gas tax increase appears dead this year, most legislators agreed.

Mr. Levitan said his committee would approve a fee bill today or tomorrow that would address several concerns of House members.

The bill, he said, will probably reserve some or all of the new fee money for the construction of new roads and other transit projects.

Mr. Levitan said it also would probably require the Transportation Department to borrow several times what it raises in new revenue -- in anticipation of a gasoline tax increase in 1992.

Mr. Lighthizer has said he would use new fee revenue for preserving existing roads and other facilities, not constructing new ones. And he has said he would not use the fee money as a basis for borrowing more than about $1 for every $1 in new revenue.

Mr. Mitchell said he has not yet decided how to respond to the latest budget figures from transportation officials.

But, he added, he was skeptical of their timing -- coming a week after the governor's gas tax plan was killed by the House.

"They're painting the worst picture they can paint, because they want a tax increase," he said.

He also pointed out that legislative budget analysts did not think the decline in revenue would be as sharp as Transportation Department budget officials predict.

Mr. Lighthizer said the amount of money available for new construction would drop, because of the auto sales slump, from $83 million to $3 million in fiscal 1992. Legislative analysts told the Senate budget committee the figure would probably drop to $61 million.

"I don't know whose figures to believe," Mr. Mitchell said.

In December, the Transportation Department was forced by a projected five-year, $583 million deficit to call a halt to $560 million in new road, rail and other projects planned to start work through June 1992.

Mr. Lighthizer said yesterday that the latest expected revenue drop would force him to freeze the rest of the planned $640 million worth of new transportation spending over the next 15 months.

That spending included major maintenance projects on state roads and construction of new sections of interstate highways.

Transportation Department officials said that even with a 15-month freeze on new projects, the state would still be able to spend about $334 million on some ongoing highway and transit projects.

Road projects threatened

Below are the 21 interstate highway projects that could lose federal matching money because of the growing state Transportation Trust Fund deficit.

Highway

I-595, U.S. 301 to Patuxent River

Type of work: Rebuild to six lanes $53.5

Highway

I-97, Route 176 to Route 648

Type of work: Rebuild to eight lanes 43.0

Highway

I-595, Route 424 to I-97

Type of work: Rebuild to six lanes 43.3

Highway

I-97, Route 174 to Route 176

Type of work: Rebuild to six lanes 39.8

Highway

I-595, Patuxent River to Route 424

Type of work: Rebuild to six lanes 35.5

Highway

I-97, south of Rt. 176 to south of Rt. 648

Type of work: Land acquisition 9.5

Highway

I-97, mitigation site

Type of work: Wetlands replacement 0.3

Highway

I-97, Route 648 to I-695

Type of work: 8-lane reconstruction 33.8

Highway

I-97, Route 648 to I-695

Type of work: Land acquisition 1.0

Highway

I-195, Route 295 to Route 170

Type of work: Wetlands replacement 0.5

Highway

I-595, Route 2 and Route 450

Type of work: Interchange 22.7

Highway

Route 162, north of Rt. 176, Poplar Ave.

Type of work: 4-lane reconstruction 5.5

Highway

Route 162, north of Rt. 176, Poplar Ave.

Type of work: Land acquisition 0.3

Highway

Route 32, interchange at B-W Parkway

Type of work: Land acquisition 1.1

Highway

Route 32, interchange at B-W Parkway

Type of work: Interchange rebuilding 8.5

Highway

Route 450, Bridge over Severn River

Type of work: Land acquisition 0.4

Highway

I-595, Haven Rd. to Severn Bridge Rd.

Type of work: Median barrier 4.1

Highway

I-595, interchange Route 2, Route 450

Type of work: Land acquisition 0.1

Highway

I-495, Route 650 to U.S. 1

Type of work: Widen and resurface 15.4

Highway

I-595, at Patuxent River

Type of work: Wetlands replacement 1.2

Highway

I-95, approaching I-495

Type of work: Message signs 0.3

Source: Maryland Department of Transportation

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