Highwaymen Roll Along

June 23, 1991|By DOUG BIRCH

Don't look now, but the highwaymen -- and women -- are gaining on you.

Of course, they're all ladies and gentlemen. And they're out to provide what they think is a needed service, not commit highway robbery.

But the state's road contractors, consulting engineers, construction unions, state transportation officials and all the other people who build interstates, runways, bridges and tunnels are still after a piece of your wallet.

And they're likely to get it.

The General Assembly rejected new transportation taxes and fees during its regular session. But at a special budget session this week legislators are expected to shift into reverse and pass a law to permit the Motor Vehicle Administration to raise $42 million annually through higher fees.

That would sharply increase the price of drivers' licenses (but not the annual auto registration fees), vehicle titles and scores of other little pieces of paper law-abiding citizens must obtain from the MVA.

The switch came after the Schaefer administration, faced with falling transportation revenue, froze most new DOT construction projects Dec. 10. This spring, the DOT warned that the state could lose $312 million worth of federal interstate highway and other transportation aid by October because it did not have the ** money to match federal grants.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, who used his power to block the fee increases during the regular session, remains skeptical that the aid was ever in jeopardy. But he finally relented and supported the fees earlier this month, saying he didn't want to take any chances.

The switch also came after the politically influential highway industry, through a new coalition called Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways (MESH), lobbied hard to lift the construction freeze.

(Between 1986 and 1990, Maryland Common Cause reports, the Consulting Engineer's Council of Maryland PAC gave $24,803 to legislative and statewide races; Genstar PAC gave $7,114; the Heavy Highway PAC gave $13,990; the Transportation Political Education League gave $1,270; and the Public Works Contractor's Association gave $14,340.)

A few weeks ago, at a roadside press conference, MESH members complained to gathered reporters that the freeze had brought their industry to the brink of collapse. They delivered the same message in a series of private meetings with legislators.

Within days, opposition to the higher fees folded.

Last week, the DOT said the higher fees would unfreeze $450 million worth of road, bridge, rail and other construction projects.

But even the higher fees will not be enough, DOT officials warned, to pay for another $850 million worth of projects previously sought by the legislature and slated to begin in fiscal 1992, which begins July 1.

So the sometimes acrimonious, see-saw battle over transportation revenue is not over yet. It is just entering a new phase.

The Schaefer administration and legislators are now talking about scrapping the current five-year blueprint for highway and transportation spending, called the Consolidated Transportation Program, and starting from scratch.

Legislators and DOT officials say they expect to draft a new plan that reflects the state's changed financial and political climate over the next several months.

This might calm things somewhat in the State House. But it could still cost taxpayers money.

Most legislators and DOT officials expect that even a revised plan will require more revenue. And Speaker Mitchell said he expects the DOT to ask the General Assembly, when it convenes in January, to consider an increase of between a nickel and a dime in the state's 18.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax.

But is the money really needed? How many and what kind of new roads, bridges and light rail systems does the state need, anyway? And how did the state get to the point where transportation projects were frozen, federal funds in jeopardy, highway contractors agitated and taxes on the rise?

How much of the state needs to be paved, tracked, bridged or tunneled is, of course, a subjective determination. It depends on the amount of time people are willing to spend in traffic tie-ups, how far they want to travel, where they want to go, what vehicle they want to get there in and what kind of development -- urban versus suburban or rural, high-density versus low -- that they want.

Current tastes are shifting, legislators and transportation officials claim. Over the past several years, they say, Marylanders have become more concerned about environmental issues, more interested in alternatives to driving and sick of the record level of highway construction that -- in the short run -- has seemed to cause as many tie-ups as it has cured.

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