Mass transit plan not affordable

March 11, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

IT LOOKS so enticing on paper, but it's the details buried in the fine print that tell the real story.

Headline: Governor proposes innovative six-year, $758 million mass-transit program.

Sounds great. Parris N. Glendening wants to put some meat on the scraggly bones of Baltimore's skeletal rail-and-bus transit system. It's part of a well-intended state public-transit initiative.

But like many items in the governor's overly generous budget, this package is unaffordable.

Here's what it would mean:

A large fee increase on Maryland's toll roads, tunnels and bridges in 2003.

A gaping hole in general-fund revenue that would add to future deficits created by other Glendening "break-the-bank" spending plans.

A growing need for even more general-fund dollars in later years to keep all of his transportation projects alive.

Added pressure on the next governor and legislature to raise Maryland's sales tax or income tax -- or both -- to pay for it all.

To avoid such outcomes, delegates in the House this week will try to meld the governor's unrealistically optimistic budget request with the fact that Maryland has a limited treasury.

Something's got to give. Plenty of programs awarded big increases by Mr. Glendening will be denied -- including transportation.

But in the process, legislators also must find a way to keep the governor's mass-transit initiative on track. It's a commendable effort to turn public transportation into a popular travel alternative.

The trouble is that the governor hasn't found a sensible way to pay for these improvements.

And his initiative doesn't even begin to list the billions more that will be needed to pay for new light-rail lines -- a downtown loop; an extension along Harford Road and then out to White Marsh; and a western route to Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn and then on to Columbia.

In other words, we still don't have a coherent, long-range program in place. We don't know the precise routes, the price tag or the funding sources.

What we do have is an important first-step proposal. It's designed to greatly improve bus service, add neighborhood shuttle jitneys and study new rail routes.

Paying for the governor's initiative won't be easy. Not all of it is remotely possible in a year when lawmakers must cut at least $230 million from Mr. Glendening's grant-a-wish budget just to get under the spending affordability cap.

Besides, some of the proposed funding elements don't add up.

Diverting $43 million from the state toll authority so weakens the agency that fees on bridge and tunnel crossings and the Kennedy Memorial Highway would have to go up drastically in 2003.

In the past, surplus toll funds have been borrowed to build port and airport facilities, but the money has been repaid. This time, the governor simply wants to turn drivers' tolls into money for ongoing mass-transit activities.

He also wants to shift more general-fund dollars from the sales tax on car rentals and from the corporate income tax to mass transit. That would mean $39 million less each year for other state agencies.

The notion of putting more general-fund money into transportation could work. But not in 2001, when the General Assembly faces huge cost-overruns in the budget.

Expect considerable negotiating between legislators and the governor in the coming weeks. The result will be a different-looking transit initiative.

One likely casualty: A proposed reduction in the bus and rail fare from $1.35 to $1.10.

Another possible casualty: a deal brokered by the governor with labor unions so that state workers in the Baltimore area can ride for free on buses.

Remove those provisions and you save $12 million. That money then can be used to finance $72 million in transit initiatives over six years.

Here's another possibility: Instead of stripping the toll authority of $43 million a year, simply borrow surplus toll money to buy an extra 100 buses, introduce a pre-paid "smart card" technology for buses and rail lines and start construction of a downtown light-rail loop. This borrowed money could be repaid slowly.

Mr. Glendening's plan for improving mass transit is very much on target. Where he comes up short is in the financing. His plan would dump billions of dollars of transit IOUs on the desk of the next Maryland governor.

The good news is that state legislators aren't likely to let that happen. Nor are they likely to let Mr. Glendening shatter this year's spending affordability cap.

This means a much smaller and phased-in mass-transit initiative -- one that fits within the state's available revenues.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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