Ehrlich faces rough ride on road needs

Finding funds for projects could be politically jarring

`A test of his leadership'

Panel to suggest `menu' of options next month

November 09, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was running for governor, transportation was one of his strongest issues. In next year's General Assembly session, it could become one of his biggest headaches.

Before the legislature convenes in January, the governor who took office pledging to end gridlock faces a politically wrenching choice over how to raise money for the state's transportation needs.

Whatever he chooses is bound to outrage many. His critics complain that a decision is long overdue. His No. 1 transportation priority, a new highway in the Washington suburbs, could be jeopardized if he doesn't find the money to deliver on his other promises.

"It's going to be a test of his leadership," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Transportation, in many places, is the No. 1 issue. It surpasses education as the No. 1 issue with many voters."

Ehrlich's Transportation Department has put a minimum price on the state's needs: $300 million a year in additional revenue to increase capital spending from $6.6 billion to $11.3 billion during the next six years.

A commission headed by former Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann is considering a "menu" of options for raising the money -- all of them politically unpalatable.

Among the choices: a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax and a $60 increase in the annual vehicle registration fee. Also on the list is a proposal to increase the vehicle title tax from 5 percent to 6 percent -- a measure adamantly opposed by auto dealers, a core Ehrlich constituency.

Administration officials have said Ehrlich will make no decision until he receives a recommendation from the commission next month. But Hellmann says the panel might simply present the governor with a list of options. The commission can duck a hard choice; the governor can't.

In theory, Ehrlich could decide not to raise taxes or fees and to get by with less than what his experts say they need. Among some Republican legislators, that would be a popular choice.

"If that's his position, he'd probably get a lot of support from the [Republican] caucus," said Minority Leader George C. Edwards of Garrett County. "If he has another position, he'd probably get varying degrees of support."

But in a heavily Democratic state with high expectations of its transportation system, allowing transportation to deteriorate would be politically perilous. Ehrlich's credibility as a transportation advocate could vanish -- leaving a vacuum for his Democratic rivals to fill.

Awaiting delivery

Meanwhile, key Ehrlich constituencies, such as highway contractors and trucking companies, are counting on him to deliver on his transportation promises.

"Clearly, we would be disappointed and, clearly, we would be hurting if they did nothing," said Brian R. Holmes, executive director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association.

If Ehrlich fails to replenish the depleted Transportation Trust Fund, he also risks a challenge to his plans for building the Inter-County Connector in Maryland's Washington suburbs -- one of the central campaign promises in his race for governor.

Some legislators have expressed concern that without new revenue, the ICC could absorb a disproportionate share of the state's transportation resources -- putting projects in their home regions at risk.

That concern became apparent last week when Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan appeared before a House subcommittee.

Flanagan told lawmakers that the ICC financing plan would commit as much as $60 million in federal funds each year for up to 30 years to pay the debt service on ICC bonds. Under persistent questioning, Flanagan acknowledged that that money otherwise could be used for other projects.

Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Havre de Grace Democrat, expressed concern that improvements to U.S. 40 in Harford County would take a back seat to the ICC.

"It's going to have some difficulty in the General Assembly because of the magnitude of that amount," James said of the ICC financing plan. "I'm concerned about [U.S.] Route 40. ... I don't see any new dollars for it."

The administration says it has a funding plan in place for the proposed $1.7 billion ICC, which would link the high-tech corridor of Montgomery County with Interstate 95. Flanagan says his department and the Maryland Transportation Authority can move ahead with plans to issue bonds and set tolls without the approval of the General Assembly.

Warren G. Deschenaux, the Assembly's chief policy analyst, said the administration appears to have the authority to adopt a funding plan for the ICC unless the legislature does something affirmatively to stop it.

"The legislature could do other things that would make Mr. Flanagan pay attention to them, so I wouldn't ride that horse too far," Deschenaux said.

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