Mass transit initiative needs a green light

March 05, 2001|By Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings

GOV. PARRIS N. Glendening has proposed an impressive initiative to significantly increase and improve mass transit services in Maryland.

This initiative and the governor's funding proposal present quite a challenge to me in my roles as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, both as a representative of the entire state and as a delegate representing Baltimore City.

As a member of the House of Delegates and a lifelong Baltimore City resident, I see firsthand how transit improvements are needed to benefit citizens who daily must rely on public transportation. I also see the need to provide services in areas where public transportation exists in only a very limited capacity.

One of the most significant initiatives in the governor's proposal is to reduce base bus fares throughout the state from $1.35 to $1.10 and to offer an all-day pass for $2.50. This standardization of fares statewide would create a more seamless and equitable system.

In addition, the proposal includes enhanced services for rural areas, which need transit services but have historically had minimal public transportation systems. These efforts will make public transportation more accessible to all citizens, especially low-income and disabled riders, reduce congestion, improve access to jobs and cut pollution -- benefits to all Marylanders.

The decision of whether to support the entire transit initiative will not be easy. Every year, the General Assembly must make difficult choices when considering the governor's budget; however, this year's budget is especially challenging.

The General Assembly must reduce the governor's budget by about $200 million to meet the legislature's spending affordability goal, which ensures that the growth in the state's ongoing expenses tracks the growth of the income of Maryland's taxpayers. Implementing new programs or making room for increases in funding for other important programs will require further reductions to the governor's budget.

Further complicating the matter is the projected $750 million cost of the transit initiative over the next six years.

The governor proposes to fund this initiative primarily by diverting funds from the general fund. While this may seem like a good idea now, when the economy slows and tax revenues that support critical government programs decline, choosing which crucial social programs to cut will be even more difficult if we divert general fund revenues to mass transit.

Further, whenever general funds are dedicated to a specific purpose, the General Assembly loses the flexibility in the budget to provide for all of the needs of citizens. However, unlike suggestions in prior years, this proposal would limit diversions from the general fund to revenue sources linked to transportation, such as the sales tax on rental cars, which makes the transfer somewhat more acceptable.

My colleagues and I must balance the desire to improve transit services with the need to fund a fiscally sound budget. In making these difficult decisions, the House fiscal committees will carefully review both the budgetary and policy implications of the governor's transit initiative and make decisions that reflect our tradition of being both socially responsible and fiscally prudent.

I am committed to do everything within my power to see that substantial elements of the governor's mass transit initiative are funded.

Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings is a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly from Baltimore City and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

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