Running out of funds for state transit needs

$27 billion gap: Panel should urge governor and legislature to dedicate more tax revenue to transportation.

November 01, 1999

MARYLAND'S transportation agency is now flush with cash from the gasoline tax and eager to expand its construction projects. But over the next two decades, that bountiful situation is expected to change dramatically: There's a $27 billion shortfall in money to pay for all of this state's transportation needs.

That's a staggering gap, one that should alarm Gov. Parris N. Glendening and General Assembly leaders. Yet Mr. Glendening's only response to date has been to pledge an extra $200 million to help build a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River.

How does he intend to fill in the remaining $26.8 billion, 20-year gap to pay for necessary transportation improvements?

That's one of the key questions a commission is grappling with as the group begins writing its final report this afternoon. It's clear that the governor's approach -- maintaining the status quo in how the state finances transportation projects -- won't help Maryland meet its long-term obligations.

Money from automotive licensing charges, bus and subway fares, port and airport fees and the gasoline tax fuel the state's transportation trust fund. With the economy booming, plenty of cash is there to meet current construction demands, but not future projects.

For instance, where will we get the money to build light-rail extensions to White Marsh and to Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn? Or a downtown light-rail loop? Or major road and subway improvements in gridlocked Montgomery County?

Such advances are essential for this state to ease traffic congestion and promote smarter transportation travel patterns. It's also key to luring more companies to this region. But it will require new revenue streams of at least $500 million a year.

That doesn't have to mean higher taxes. State leaders could, instead, tap into an existing revenue source, such as the state sales tax. Dedicating one-fifth of the state's 5-percent sales tax has been suggested as a prime target. It would be a sensible move.

Even that wouldn't underwrite all the $27 billion in projects, but it would put the transportation department on much firmer financial footing.

Given the strength of Maryland's economy, now is an ideal time for Mr. Glendening to earmark a portion of future sales tax revenues to transportation. He may want to phase it in over a number of years. One thing he should not do is leave this giant financing problem unsolved. That would be unfair to his successors.

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