Roads, rails in dire need of upgrades

Transportation panel sees state spending increase of $27 billion

`Have to remain competitive'

Money could come from tax increases, state's general fund

November 20, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A state commission has found that, unless Maryland soon invests billions more dollars in its road, rail and bus systems, they'll be all but obsolete in 20 years.

The state's almost $1 billion budget surplus might provide some money immediately, according to a report by the governor's Commission on Transportation Investment to be released Monday. But a more reliable, long-term source of funds -- such as increasing the state's gasoline tax, sales tax or both -- must be found by 2003, the report says.

In the next two decades, Maryland will need to invest $27 billion above current spending levels for transportation, the commission concluded. It based its report on studies that predict 1 million to 6 million more residents and an additional 700,000 jobs in Maryland 20 years from now.

"If we don't do something, the congestion we face today is going to multiply and simply make it more and more difficult for people to get to work, to pick up their kids, to do their errands," said John P. Davey, the commission's co-chairman.

"Businesses that are making decisions about where they will locate have to consider how difficult the commute is from job to home. We have to remain competitive."

After four months of study, the group is expected to approve its recommendations next week.

"Alternative funding sources will be necessary," a draft of the report says, because the state's Transportation Trust Fund -- funded by the gas tax -- is inadequate.

Key questions facing the commission are whether to recommend boosting state taxes or taking from the state's general fund, and the timing of any such moves. The draft suggests such measures won't be necessary until 2003, but some commission members say the questions should be answered when the General Assembly convenes in January.

"A decision to put off any legislation until 2003 is more political than reasonable," said Jack Kintslinger a commission member who belongs to a coalition of highway contractors and others interested in improving Maryland's road network. "Transportation is critical to the economy, and we think it's unfortunate that they want to defer action until that time."

Of the $27 billion, $25.5 billion is marked for capital projects and $1.5 billion for transit operations. The report called the amount "not unreasonable," adding that it might even be understated.

As a modest start, the draft suggests boosting transportation dollars by $100 million each of the next four years, which would increase Maryland's $1.1 billion Transportation Trust Fund nearly 50 percent by 2004. General fund surpluses could supply additional transportation funds for the next few years, according to the report.

By 2003, legislators would have to decide how to raise the bulk of the additional $27 billion.

Maryland's transportation agenda includes paying a share of the $1.9 billion cost of replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which spans the Potomac River on Interstate 95. It also involves an ambitious goal to double mass transit ridership by 2020.

The group's schedule for increasing transportation money is more aggressive than one put forward recently by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

In September, Glendening said the state could afford to spend an extra $1.3 billion on transportation over six years.

With tax collections far outpacing predictions and the state poised to receive hundreds of millions of dollars this year from the settlement with tobacco companies, the governor ruled out increasing the gas tax during the remaining three years of his term.

That's just a beginning. Most of the $27 billion is going to have to come from a tax increase or other new source. The group expects to debate how the sales tax could be tapped for more dollars.

Thursday, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. weighed in with a proposal to dedicate an increasing percentage of the state sales tax to revamp mass transit. But that idea seems headed for a fight.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a member of the commission who also chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she is against the idea.

"I'm absolutely opposed to earmarking anything," Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, said. She also opposes any tax increase for the next couple of years. "We are not raising it when we are so flush with cash," Hoffman said. "I couldn't do it with a straight face."

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