Maryland's Transportation Dilemma

June 04, 1994

State legislators are on the right path in forming a joint panel to investigate the transportation department's looming revenue shortfall. The demands for new and improved highways -- especially in fast-growing suburbs -- and mass transit options are immense. Yet transportation revenue can't possibly cover all these projects.

It's not hard to figure out why money for roads and mass transit is in short supply. Cutbacks in federal transportation aid will continue because of efforts to reduce the huge federal deficit. Meanwhile, the main sources of Maryland's transportation revenue (the gasoline tax, the motor vehicle titling tax, the auto registration fee and a portion of the corporate income tax) are growing only about 3 percent a year. But the cost of maintaining and operating this state's transportation network of ports, airports, roads, bridges and rail and bus service grows at an 8 percent annual rate.

A cash crunch is brewing later in this decade. By then, there won't be enough money to do more than maintain the existing modes of transportation. All new capital projects will have to be shelved. No money to enlarge the airport. No money to add new cargo space at the Port of Baltimore. No money for road-widening or new routes. No light-rail or MARC or Metro expansions.

Such a situation would stop economic development cold. Maryland's quality of life would be adversely affected. Beltway gridlock would worsen dramatically. Maryland might even find it impossible to meet federal clean-air mandates.

We're encouraged that state lawmakers, on their own initiative, have established a working group to come up with some revenue solutions. The problem is so immense that a tax increase seems inevitable. How else can the Baltimore and Washington regions expand their mass transit systems while also improving highway routes between suburbs and through rural parts of Maryland?

Some states dedicate a portion of their sales tax receipts to mass transit. Others impose a higher sales tax in regions with fixed-rail systems. A few states use lottery revenues for mass transit. Heavy vehicles are taxed to subsidize transportation projects in a number of states. And private or public toll roads are being explored to free up money for other road and transit projects.

None of these options would be popular. In fact, any solution will draw strong opposition from the public and from special interests. But the alternative is to do nothing and let Maryland's fine transportation network slowly crumble from neglect. That's unacceptable.

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