Mass transit proposal may face cuts

Cost of expanding bus, subway services studied in Assembly

`They did a sloppy job'

2002 budget to get $200 million trim

March 04, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly is considering significant cuts to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's six-year, $750 million plan to expand and modernize bus and subway service for hundreds of thousands of Maryland commuters, shoppers and other travelers.

The proposal, which Glendening says would bring mass transit systems into the "next generation," is a key component of his Smart Growth policy to slow suburban sprawl and reduce the time Marylanders spend in their cars.

But the initiative has placed the legislature in a quandary. Forced to trim more than $200 million from Glendening's 2002 budget plan to meet a self-imposed spending limit, many Assembly leaders say they have little choice but to rein in the popular proposal because it could pull money away from existing programs in such areas as health and education.

"We're going to do a much more modest mass transit initiative," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.

"We want to relieve pressure from congestion, and constituents need access to where the jobs are with mass transit. But this is a new program and, while it is needed in the state, it diverts revenues from the general fund," Rawlings said.

It is early enough in the budget process that Rawlings and other legislators are still looking at where the program can be cut and by how much. But the threat to the initiative is so clear that one of its backers, Democratic Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. of Montgomery County, plans to meet with Glendening's staff this week to examine changing the plan's funding to make it more palatable to the legislature.

"I'm trying to preserve as much of this as I can, but I'm facing reality. The governor's budget is over the cap, and people are looking at scaling back this transit initiative," Van Hollen said.

The initiative would reduce bus fares in Baltimore by 25 cents to $1.10, begin Sunday subway service in Baltimore from 6 a.m. to midnight, and open bus shuttle routes in some communities.

In the Washington area, the plan would pay for new buses and subway cars, and would expand bus service in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. It would also allow riders to travel on any transit system in the state and on Washington Metro trains with a prepaid "Smart Card."

The measure has political appeal. The number of Marylanders who consider transportation their top legislative concern has increased from 4 percent in 1998 to 10 percent, according to a poll conducted for The Sun before the 90-day legislative session opened in January. More than half of state voters think it is more important to fund new mass transit than to build more roads, the poll found.

"We have heard they are scaling this back, and we are seriously concerned about any cuts in the program," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental group.

"Transit in this state has been underfunded for decades. We've got people who want to work and can't get to jobs. We've got roads that are absolutely choked and horrible air quality."

To pay for the plan without raising taxes, Glendening is proposing to tap into portions of three revenue sources in the next six years: corporate income taxes, tolls collected on Maryland roads and the sales tax on rental cars.

Some senators object to the governor's plan to increase the amount of the corporate income tax dedicated to transportation from 1 3/4 cents per dollar to 2 3/4 cents - a change that would pull $350 million from general revenue in the next six years.

Legislators are also concerned about the provision that would siphon away some of the toll revenues - about $43 million a year - that are spent on maintaining bridges and tunnels.

"It isn't just the money that bothers me, it's where the money comes from," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "This is not without merit, it's just that they did a sloppy job of trying to finance it."

Glendening is willing to restructure the financing if it means salvaging his initiative, which he announced in December.

"If the General Assembly wishes to propose other sources of revenue without raising taxes, we would be more than happy to discuss it," said Michael Morrill, the governor's spokesman. "Our goal is to have a mass transit system in place that allows people to move around Maryland easily."

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