Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer has predicted a halt toroad maintenance and new highway construction throughout Maryland unless state lawmakers increase the gasoline tax and boost titling fees.
Lighthizer said construction on I-97, Route 50 and Route 32 could come to a standstill. The extension of Route 100 west to I-95, as well as resurfacing of state roads in Harwood, Annapolis and Glen Burnie, would be delayed.
"We're broke," Rebecca Reid, Lighthizer's press secretary, said yesterday. "We have no money now. And nothing will be able to start upfor some time."
Many county lawmakers remain unconvinced.
"Up until this time, he (Lighthizer) hasn't convinced me he needs the money," said Delegate Elizabeth S. Smith, R-Davidsonville. "I still say we can get out of this session without raising any taxes whatsoever."
"They simply haven't justified a tax increase," said Delegate Victor Sulin, D-Severn.
In an appeal for new taxes, state transportation officials told a Senate panel Tuesday that they expect a drastic decline in revenues that will endanger future road construction. Based on March tax receipts, they set the shortfall at $80 million duringthe next two years.
The state also could lose up to $420 million in federal aid for interstate highway construction in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, they said. Because of the deficit, the state will not be able to kick in the amount of money needed to obtain the federal funds, they said.
Without the added revenue and federal money, road construction and maintenance projects totaling $1.2 billion would have to be deferred over the next six years. But the deficit will not affect the light rail mass transit line from Hunt Valleyto Glen Burnie, Reid said.
"I have said to delay a tax increase will only exacerbate the fiscal situation," Lighthizer said Tuesday. "In light of the March numbers, that is clearly an understatement."
House Speaker Clayton Mitchell, D-Eastern Shore, opposed the Schaefer administration's request for a 5 percent gasoline sales tax. A House panel --chaired by Delegate Tyras S. "Bunk" Athey, D-Jessup -- unanimously killed the proposal earlier this month.
Several House members said they fear the administration is "crying wolf" to pressure legislators into approving new taxes in some form. They said they expect the Senate to increase fees charged for Motor Vehicle Administration services, such as vehicle registration, title transfers and driver's licenses.
"It's probably a pitch to get the titling fee bill passed," said Delegate John Gary, R-Millersville. "There has been a lotof huddling among the leaders. I suppose they've been trying to figure a way to provide the revenues through titling fees."
Gary said he would support a fee package that raised about $40 million. "That'sa good trade for the taxpayer," he said. "The average consumer can live with that a lot easier than all these hidden taxes at the gas pump."
"There is no question the Transportation Trust Fund is in deep, deep trouble," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park. "It's part of the recession. I don't think they are crying wolf."
But Jimeno said he'll scrutinize any new tax proposals. Anne Arundel has benefited more than any other county from the nickel gasoline tax passedin 1986, he said. But several of the projects promised five years ago now appear in jeopardy.
"The state is trying to play catch-up with the growth that has occurred in our area," he said. "In '86, they gave us a commitment: 'You support the gas tax, and we'll give you these roads.' I'll look at the (new) package. If we're scrapping all ofour projects and the money is earmarked for the port (of Baltimore) or someplace else, I'll be pretty disappointed."
Smith, a member of House panel that considers all new taxes, said she opposes even the fee hike. "I just refuse to raise taxes this year," she said.
If the fee package fails, Gary said he won't "cry any crocodile tears if these projects are lost or delayed."
"Frankly, I believe Anne Arundel County could stand a little rest from road construction projects," Gary said. "We've had road construction for six years. I don't think any of my constituents will mind if it stops for a while."
THREATENED HIGHWAY PROJECTS IN COUNTY
State highway projects, which are scheduled to start next year in Anne Arundel County, that state highway officials say are jeopardized by state Transportation Trust Fund deficit:
Highway....Route 173 at Elizabeth Road
Type of Work .. Drainage improvements..Cost .. $176,000
Highway....Route 175 at Arundel High School
Type of Work..Grading improvements..Cost.. 206,000
Highway....Route 177 at Tick Neck Rd. & Disney Ave.
Type of Work.. Traffic signal..Cost 31,000
Highway....Route 178 at Crownsville Road
Type of Work.. Grading improvements..Cost .. 147,000
Highway....Route 2 -- Cypress Creek Rd. to White Rd.
Type of Work .. Widening...Cost ... 589,000
Highway....Route 3 at Waugh Chapel Road
Type of Work ... Widen left turn lane..Cost ... 143,000