The future of Maryland's transportation network -- from roads to airports, from bus and rail systems to Baltimore's port -- hinges on a two-word question:
As the cost of running the state's public transit systems continues to escalate, state officials say the current reliance on taxing gasoline to pay for all forms of transportation may have to change.
Without action, the long-term threat is that highway congestion will one day outstrip the state's ability to build and improve roads or expand transit systems.
"What we're trying to do is avoid a crisis," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "We need to do something now."
Mr. Levitan has helped organize an unusual effort to look at a state problem apart from the General Assembly session. Two dozen delegates and senators have agreed to join the study.
Armed with reams of charts, tables and graphs, they have gathered twice to consider not only how to finance transportation projects, but also how they are chosen and planned.
Cars still are the transportation choice for nine of 10 commuters, said Sen. William H. Amoss, the Harford Democrat who chairs the Joint Transportation Financing Work Group.
If trends continue, highway construction will be reduced mostly to the maintenance of existing roads by the end of the century, according to a recent Transportation Department analysis.
Automotive congestion is felt most acutely in the Washington area, where there is a strong public interest in upgrading highways. Commuters on the increasingly crowded Baltimore Beltway likely share that sentiment.
Some legislators in the work group believe that the state needs to look more closely at alternative methods of financing major highway projects, including private partnership and toll facilities.
Bad news for Baltimore?
The bad news for Baltimore is that the local aid formula looms as an inviting target in the talks. State law gives the city half of all local transportation aid.
In the fiscal year that ends June 30, that translates into more than $152 million for Baltimore, with another $152 million divided among the state's 23 other subdivisions. Many Washington-area legislators consider that formula unfair and see in the current discussions an opportunity to revise it.
"There's no question that Montgomery and Prince George's counties are gunning for that money," observed Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer. "If I was the city, I'd be hiding every penny right now and getting ready for the onslaught."
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, said suburban legislators don't realize how much more expensive it is to maintain urban roads. "It isn't like the suburbs, where the State Highway Administration comes in to clear the roads after a bad snowstorm," she said.
At the heart of the financial debate is the Transportation Trust Fund, the state's budget-within-a-budget. In a "user fee" approach, the fund gets its money mainly from transportation taxes and fees.
The trust fund is held apart from the remainder of the state budget. In principle, trust fund money can't be used for anything but transportation-related programs, although that rule has been breached during fiscal crises.
Motor fuel taxes, motor vehicle title and registration charges, a portion of the corporate tax, federal aid and assorted fees go into the trust. Money for highways, transit, the state's airports and the Port of Baltimore and transportation aid to local jurisdictions come out.
The port and the airports generally recover their costs and cause no great burden to the trust fund. Local aid is fixed at 30 percent of the total fund. That leaves highways and transit.
Spending shifts to transit
Spending on highways once outstripped transit by a 2-to-1 margin, but transit has pulled even.
"The pendulum has swung in these last couple of years to the transit side," said Mr. Amoss. "That's not altogether bad. But I think you have to step back and consider your priorities."
The growing transit burden has been largely the result of an increase in operating costs -- the money needed to run buses, subways and other systems of the Mass Transit Administration and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
At best, passenger fares pay for half the cost of running those systems. The remaining shortfall -- the so-called transit deficit -- has to be made up by the taxpayer.
Unfortunately, as mass transit expands to serve more neighborhoods, so does its operating deficit. If fares are raised above what customers regard as reasonable, the number of riders drops and the deficit widens.
In the past, debates over transportation financing have focused on whether to raise the gasoline tax. But if the state's 23.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax were raised by the next General Assembly -- as it has been on a roughly four-year cycle -- the problem with transit costs would remain.