Shortchanging transportation

Lack of funds: State leaders can't afford to ignore highway and mass transit need any longer.

June 15, 1999

FOR FIVE YEARS, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has avoided raising transportation taxes. The General Assembly has happily gone along: Politicians never want to be labeled tax-raisers.

But the state's transportation trust fund, which pays for road, bridge, mass transit, airport and port improvements, is running low. There isn't enough cash to pay for new light-rail routes or to complete widening of the Baltimore beltway. Nor is there money to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or build an east-west Intercounty Connector in the Washington area.

In a few years, the state will have to halt most expansion plans. That would be a body blow to economic development.

Maryland cannot stand still on transportation. Heavy congestion in the Baltimore-Washington region requires improvements. That means more funds.

Some Republican legislators oppose a transportation tax increase. With some $80 million in unexpected surplus flowing into the trust fund, they say that should suffice. It would, if nearly all future projects are dropped.

Maryland is billions -- not millions -- short. Just to continue the current spending trends over the next decade would require $2.2 billion in new funds; to meet all future plans would cost $4.3 billion.

One proposal calls for raising the state's gasoline tax by a nickel and increasing registration and titling fees. That would give a considerable long-term boost. Road-builders and rural lawmakers favor a higher Baltimore-Washington regional sales tax to support mass-transit operations.

Another idea is to take a portion of existing income- or sales-tax revenue and dedicate it to transportation. That is especially appealing when plenty of money is rolling in.

The worst thing would be to delay any decision. Steps to attack traffic congestion cannot be put off without risking voter resentment.

A gubernatorial task force is to make recommendations late this year on how to enlarge the transportation trust fund. We urge the governor and state lawmakers to face this problem squarely and to come up with a long-range solution during the next General Assembly session, starting in January.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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