Ehrlich's ICC plan draws criticism

O'Malley, lawmakers balk at administration view that road gets top funding

Raising gas tax debated

September 24, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration appears to be headed for a showdown with lawmakers and Mayor Martin O'Malley over its desire to separate funding of the proposed Intercounty Connector from the question of how to pay for the state's growing transportation needs.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan told a legislative subcommittee yesterday that the administration's plan to build the Washington-area highway does not require any additional tax revenue - such as an increase in the gasoline levy.

Flanagan said other projects around the state - political lifeblood for legislators and local politicians - could be tied to any proposal to raise additional transportation tax revenues.

"We think we already have the ICC funded," Flanagan said, referring to a plan unveiled this month to pay for the administration's No. 1 transportation priority.

Senior Democratic legislators disagreed, however, saying it would be unfair to give the ICC protected status while leaving other important projects dependent on additional revenues.

"It's impossible for the governor to fund the ICC without a significant increase in the gas tax," said Del. Peter Franchot, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation. "And I'm an ICC advocate."

Democratic Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of Baltimore's Senate delegation, said the administration's plan to separate the ICC from the question of raising the state's current 23.5 cents-a-gallon gas tax is "not going to fly."

"These are inextricably connected," said McFadden, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

That was also the view of O'Malley, who went to Annapolis yesterday to urge a task force on transportation funding to support two major passenger rail projects and to protect Baltimore from further cuts to the state aid it receives to maintain its roads and bridges.

O'Malley joined Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a likely rival for the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006, on a panel of local officials who testified about transportation needs.

The two men emphasized a need for greater investment in mass transit projects, but otherwise delivered vastly different messages to the task force headed by former state Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann.

O'Malley delivered a hard-edged message laden with thinly veiled criticisms of the Ehrlich administration.

"We cannot allow transportation policy to drift in a piecemeal and politically motivated manner," the mayor said.

O'Malley gave a grim assessment of the city's ability to maintain its roads and bridges, which he said were in a "deplorable state" because of the current level of funding.

"We are funded right now in a perpetual downward spiral," he said.

The mayor praised the ICC, which would connect Interstate 95 with the technology-rich Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County, as a "great project."

However, O'Malley made a case that the Baltimore region has at least two equally important projects: a Baltimore regional rail system and the proposed Maglev train connecting Baltimore and Washington.

Afterward, O'Malley said he opposes the administration's plan to fund the estimated $1.7 billion cost of the ICC regardless of what happens on the revenue side.

"They are kind of punting on other projects to get one," the mayor said.

Duncan criticized Ehrlich for vetoing a large component of his plan to spend $1 billion over 10 years on county transportation projects - a county surcharge on vehicle registrations.

The Montgomery executive said the ICC is necessary to allow high-tech industries to spread from his county to other parts of the state. He also complimented the governor's financing plan, which relies heavily on tolls and on bonds backed by future federal transportation aid.

However, Duncan expressed doubts whether the administration will be able to keep the ICC funding plan separate from any proposal to raise the gas tax.

In his appearance before the House subcommittee, Flanagan continued to dance around the question of raising the gas tax - a step many of his fellow Republicans have vowed to oppose.

At times, he seemed to indicate he was laying the groundwork for a campaign to win approval for such a measure. But he insisted the administration would take no position on an increase until the Hellmann commission reports its findings in December.

Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, chided Flanagan for putting off a decision, saying proponents of any tax increase would need time to organize a campaign to persuade legislators to cast a difficult vote.

"Get your act together and get us all organized. If we wait till mid-December, I have some real concerns," said Franchot, who is advocating a 10-cents-a- gallon increase with a portion going to mass transit.

Franchot warned Flanagan that legislators from the Washington suburbs and Baltimore would not support any revenue measure if the task force recommends a program they see as biased against mass transit.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Franchot is "probably correct in that statement."

"It seems to me that the ICC or any other road project should go through the same process as anything else," he added.

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