$7.8 billion sought for Md. transit

Light rail, highways, 'Commute Smart' plan drive 43% increase

Assembly changes likely

6-year blueprint to combat sprawl, Glendening says.

January 18, 2000|By Marcia Myers and Gady A. Epstein | Marcia Myers and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening unveiled a record $7.8 billion transportation budget yesterday that includes an additional $769 million for mass transit projects -- the largest increase in mass transit funding in more than two decades.

The six-year plan would finance more than $400 million in improvements in the Baltimore area, including double-tracking of the Light Rail system, $100 million for neighborhood projects such as sidewalks and better transit stations, and $23 million for a "Commute Smart" program to promote carpooling.

An additional $434 million would pay for an extension of the Washington subway system's Blue Line to Largo in Prince George's County, a move expected to be completed by 2004 and lure 20,000 additional riders a day.

"It is increasingly clear that we cannot build our way out of congestion" simply by adding roads, Glendening said. "This is a huge investment in our ongoing effort to use transportation as a `Smart Growth' tool."

The proposal is part of the state operating and capital budgets that the governor will submit to the legislature this week.

The General Assembly is likely to make some adjustments to the spending plan, which represents a 43 percent increase over last year's version.

But the proposal received a positive reaction from legislators yesterday.

The budget is unprecedented not only for its size, but also for the $375 million it would draw from the state general fund to help pay Maryland's share of the Blue Line extension and replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The state has paid for such projects out of its Transportation Trust Fund, which gets its money from gas taxes and titling fees.

`Fantastic step forward'

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who wants to earmark a penny from Maryland's 5 cent sales tax for transportation projects, has failed to persuade the governor. He nevertheless congratulated Glendening on the proposal.

"This is a fantastic step forward," the Allegany County Democrat said. With the state enjoying a surplus of nearly $1 billion, Taylor said he was "particularly happy" that Glendening favored tapping the general fund to pay for some of the work.

Democratic Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was pleased the plan included expanded bus service and what he considers other much needed improvements for the city.

Between Washington area mass transit and Baltimore, he said, "there's a difference between night and day, and [Baltimore] is still in the dark."

Environmentalists' support

Environmentalists and road builders also reacted favorably.

"This is certainly a big improvement in our transportation budget," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "We have such a long way to go toward making our transportation more environmentally sound, but this starts it."

Robert Latham, executive director of the road builders lobby Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways, also supported much of the proposal. The plan includes more than $800 million for state highway improvements.

"I think the precedent of using general funds for transportation projects is a good one," Latham said. "We still need to do something to fund transportation in the long term. This is a short-term program."

Other projects

Among other projects announced:

$50 million to extend Maryland 43 from Route 40 to Maryland 150 in Baltimore County.

$50 million to extend the Maryland Rail Commuter service to Frederick.

$45 million for sound barriers and sidewalks.

$8.5 million for upgrades to the "Smart Card" program, through which Washington area mass transit users have been able to use cards with microchips to pay their fares. The program will eventually enable riders to use one fare card on multiple systems between Baltimore and Washington.

$6 million to help pay for a Greyhound terminal at Penn Station in Baltimore.

Mass transit funding

Glendening also is expected to announce in coming weeks a revision to a state rule that requires the Mass Transit Administration to recover half of its operating expenses from fares.

Many believe that change is necessary for the governor to achieve his goal of doubling transit ridership over the next 20 years.

Critics say the requirement is an obstacle to developing new or experimental transit routes that might initially lose money as they build ridership.

Glendening made clear a shift was in the offing.

"We must make some fundamental changes," he said. "I believe the 50 percent recovery has outlived its usefulness. It ought to be modified or replaced."

Long-term needs

Left unanswered was the question: Although the state is flush with money, how will it pay for the additional $27 billion estimated to be needed for projects over the next 20 years?

A state task force concluded in November that traditional funding sources are not adequate and said new ones should be found by 2003.

But Glendening dismissed the need to identify additional sources for now.

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