Down Payment on Transportation

June 25, 1991

When the Maryland General Assembly meets tomorrow in special session, it will have two priorities: 1) balancing the current year's budget with $125 million of spending cuts, and 2) approving higher motor vehicle fees. The latter step would let the state match $312 million in federal highway funds. Yet this is only a small down payment on the state's larger transportation needs.

With these higher fees, the state will take in another $40 million each year. But this won't close the yawning gap of more than $1 billion between what legislators and administration officials want to build and existing revenues. Legislators won't even consider that problem tomorrow. A quick-fix is all lawmakers have in mind.

The new revenue should ease immediate concerns. It will enable the Department of Transportation to unfreeze contracts for 120 highway, rail, bus and airport improvement projects. And it ensures that Maryland won't lose federal money for interstate highway projects this summer.

This will pump much-needed revenue into the depressed road-construction industry and buoy the state's sagging economy. Over the long term, though, DOT's financial picture is bleak.

Legislators have asked DOT to canvass local officials and review the state's six-year transportation program. While lawmakers hope this will lead to a smaller total package, political reality dictates the opposite: these officials are likely to request more costly road and mass transit projects, not less. O. James Lighthizer, the state's transportation chief, has long favored mass transit alternatives. Yet that could wind up costing as much, if not more, than the proposed highway program.

A shift toward mass transit options is highly desirable, but only if the legislature is committed to paying for them. Assembly leaders refused to consider a requested five-cent increase in the gasoline tax last January. They won't discuss this matter at tomorrow's special session, either. And House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell already has ruled out a gas-tax debate at a second special session scheduled for September.

Yet while the legislature dawdles, DOT's construction costs escalate -- and existing revenue sources keep plunging. By the time a gas-tax increase is presented to the Assembly next January, it could take a 10-cent rise to pay for all the projects on the new, revised construction list.

Building roads and mass transit systems is extremely costly. Yet legislators have little choice but to endorse these projects if they want to see Maryland expand economically. Equally important, the quality of life in this region is tied to a first-rate transportation network. Voting for higher taxes is never pleasant. But sometimes legislators have to do what is best for the state. The longer Assembly leaders wait, the greater the political pain for all 188 of their members.

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