ANNAPOLIS -- State legislators grumbled yesterday about a proposal to raise $42 million annually through sharply higher motor-vehicle fees. Nevertheless, legislative leaders say that the General Assembly seems ready to approve those fees during a special budget session next Wednesday.
"People ask me, 'What is the state legislature doing to get the State Highway Administration to tighten its belt,' " said Sen. Idamae Garrott, D-Montgomery.
Despite that skepticism, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said that he still thinks a fee bill will pass.
State transportation officials told a joint hearing of the House and Senate budget committees yesterday that the higher fees, and the borrowing they would make possible, would jump-start about 120 stalled highway, bridge and transit projects worth $450 million.
The Schaefer administration began freezing new transportation construction Dec. 10 because of declining revenues. This spring, the administration warned that without the fee increases, the state would be unable to match and therefore would lose $312 million in federal transportation aid.
The stalled projects include the expansion of U.S. 50 south of Annapolis and construction of a new bridge to replace the old Route 450 drawbridge over the Severn River.
But Stephen G. Zentz, deputy director of transportation, gave legislators some bad news yesterday. Even with the fee increases, he said, an additional 200 transportation projects worth $850 million would remain frozen because of budget problems. Construction on those projects is scheduled to begin during the fiscal year beginning July 1.
One project is the proposed construction of a bypass around Woodsboro in Frederick County, prompting Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, to object that non-road spending "takes money away from highway funds."
The fee-increase bill would permit the Motor Vehicle Administration to raise fees for 62 licenses and services. For example, the MVAhas proposed increasing the cost of a learner's permit to $25 from $22, the cost of a driver's license to $30 from $20 and the cost of renewing a license to $20 from $6. (At the same time, the MVA has proposed extending the renewal period for licenses to five years from four.)
Transportation Department officials said that the new fees would take effect by Sept. 1.
The state Chamber of Commerce, highway contractors, engineers and the state chapter of the American Automobile Association all testified in favor of the bill. A few taxpayers showed up to testify against it.
At a budget briefing yesterday morning, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County, said that the state spends too much money for some transportation projects. "We seem to be building a lot of Cadillacs, and we need to tune them up all the time," he said.
William S. Ratchford II, the legislature's fiscal adviser, said the state "probably" could have retained the federal money without raising fees, but the Schaefer administration rejected suggestions that it increase borrowing to come up with matching funds.