Crumbling Transportation System

March 16, 1992

Thanks to internal squabbles and a lack of courage among state legislators, Maryland's transportation network is on the verge of going into hibernation. No funds to improve roads or bridges, no funds to qualify for federal highway projects, no more airport improvements, no more port improvements, no more commuter-rail additions. What was once a model transport system for the nation is about to crumble.

The Department of Transportation is flat-out broke. It has been hit hard by the recession, with gas-tax and other auto-related revenues plunging. DOT has borrowed so much on the bond market that it has hit its debt ceiling. It has been forced to borrow $75 million from the state's toll authority. DOT also is borrowing $20 million to $30 million in cash from the state's general fund to pay its bills. And yet state lawmakers -- in an outrageous shell game -- are planning on raiding the transportation fund of at least $40 million to balance the general-fund books this fiscal year!

Last week, a Senate budget plan to raise extra money for the transportation department fell apart. If nothing is worked out in the next three weeks, the department will essentially shut down, except for routine maintenance. The impact on the Maryland economy could be profound.

Ironically, the jurisdiction that needs the most help in road improvements, Montgomery County, is also the one that created the legislative deadlock. Not content with a tax and aid package that would have given her home county of Montgomery a $97 million revenue boost, Sen. Ida Ruben cast the deciding vote against a tax plan that included a higher levy on gasoline purchases. This has triggered animosity among senators from other jurisdictions that could now lose out on local aid. It could mean no gas-tax package at all.

That would be counter-productive. Bulking up the transportation fund is the quickest way to put new muscle into the anemic construction industry. It would mean a rapid infusion of contracts for road improvements -- and thousands of more jobs. That's exactly what Maryland's recession-weary economy requires right now.

Nor can the legislature ignore the need for an infusion of funds at BWI Airport for a key runway extension and a new international flight terminal. BWI is becoming an increasingly important economic engine for Maryland. Its continued growth and prosperity must be a top legislative priority.

House and Senate leaders have to overcome the petty squabbling among jurisdictions and agree on a plan for generating more transportation revenue. One greedy senator should not be permitted to sabotage plans for improving Maryland's highways, ports, rail and bus lines, airport and bridges from Deep Creek Lake to Salisbury and from Harford County to St. Mary's County. Parochial issues must be put aside for the good of the entire state.

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