No money for transportation

November 21, 1994

It was one of the great unspoken issues of this year's campaign for governor: Maryland's transportation program is steadily going broke, but neither candidate wanted to say so directly.

The problem is that Maryland is a small state trying to pay for two major metropolitan transit systems. With federal support for mass transit shrinking under domestic spending constraints, Maryland is left paying an ever-bigger share of capital and operating expenses for bus and subway lines in the Baltimore and Washington areas. That, in turn, is draining available dollars for road, port and airport construction projects.

Within a couple of years, there won't be enough money left in the state's transportation trust fund to undertake new projects: virtually all the cash will have to be devoted to preserving the tTC existing systems and underwriting the operating cost of mass transit.

There are no easy solutions. Operating costs on the mass transit lines have to be pared, but labor unions -- especially in the Washington area -- pose a major impediment. Higher fares would help a bit (but would discourage ridership). Privatizing parts of mass transit is a possibility, too, or employing part-time drivers, smaller buses and employer-subsidized routes. Privately financed toll roads would free-up trust fund money for other projects, but only a few projects justify such an approach.

Regional fees might be an alternative, but that could lead to regional warfare of unprecedented levels, pitting urban and suburban areas against rural counties. In the long run, the losers might be road projects in sparsely populated counties.

Finally, there is the dreaded "T-word." Taxes devoted to transportation may have to be raised. The gasoline tax has the advantage of being a user fee. It is really a driver's price of admission for using roads and bridges. Broader taxes might make more sense, such as devoting a portion of the income tax to transportation programs.

One way or another, though, more money is needed to pay for these projects. Maryland's sound transportation network is one of its strengths, as was recently noted in the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's economic growth strategy document. But the chamber's wish-list of new transportation projects makes it clear that even this key business group recognizes more funds are required.

Don't look for Governor-elect Parris Glendening to tackle the transportation "T-word" question immediately, though. But a consensus is emerging -- from business leaders, from the House speaker and from the governor-elect, that a way out of this bind must be found. The day is fast approaching when the transportation trust fund runs dry. The choice is to keep Maryland competitive or give up the race for more jobs and businesses.

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