Shutting Off the Highway Spigot

April 04, 1991

If the House of Delegates wants to strangle Maryland's road-building program, the opportunity is at hand. If delegates wish to see $200 million in federal transportation funds vanish in August, they have it in their power to do so. If they want to deprive 10,000 construction workers of jobs -- and help prolong the state's recession -- delegates can accomplish that goal. All they have to do is just say "no."

What's happened is that the state Department of Transportation is in a severe financial crunch. Shrinking car sales and a drop in gasoline sales have meant a swift plunge in tax-related revenues. This has forced a freeze on all future transportation projects. It has also placed in grave jeopardy $420 million worth of federal road dollars earmarked for Maryland.

Of immediate concern is about $200 million in federal highway allocations. Unless the state has enough matching money by this July, it will lose the federal aid to other states the following month.

There is only one way to ensure this money is spent improving Maryland's roads: approval of DOT's $42 million fee-increase plan. It is a sensible proposal, based on the premise that current fees pay only one-third of the cost of running the Motor Vehicle Administration. The added $42 million would permit the state to charge motor vehicle fees that recover most of the MVA's costs. That would be a sound, business-like move.

Some of these fees have not been raised in over 40 years. Isn't it about time that legislators adjusted MVA charges for driver's licenses and more than 60 other services for inflation? Why are lawmakers so reluctant to bring MVA's revenues into line with expenditures?

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell has expressed continued opposition to this plan. He does not believe DOT's plight is so desperate. He says that if he is wrong, the legislature can reverse field and approve higher fees at a September special session planned to deal with redistricting. But that will be too late. The $200 million in federal road funds will have been lost by then.

The Senate acted responsibly in approving MVA's fee-increase bill. Even conservatives who usually express skepticism about revenue-raisers saw the logic of the fee hikes. As Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade said, "It's a measure that's drastically needed, [but] it's a measure that nobody wants to vote for." Enough senators, though, had the courage to do what is best for the state.

Too much is at stake for Mr. Mitchell and leaders of the Ways and Means Committee to block passage of this bill. The most recent DOT revenue figures are downright alarming. Turning off the highway spigot would worsen the state's recession and deal a devastating blow to Maryland's road-improvement efforts. Without more fee income, the state's transportation programs would be in serious trouble. And there will be no one to blame except Speaker Mitchell and his delegates.

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