The roads ahead

February 17, 2004

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. has a vision of Maryland's transportation future and it comes with a fee.

On the surface, Mr. Ehrlich's plan to pump an additional $266 million each year into highways and transit could accomplish a lot. That's nearly as much as the governor's advisory panel recommended for Maryland's cash-strapped Transportation Trust Fund, and thanks to revised revenue estimates, should actually amount to $320 million annually. It's certain to have an impact on congestion.

But what a peculiar path Mr. Ehrlich has taken. In order to avoid a gas tax increase, he'd raise biennial auto registration fees from the current $81 to $128 for most vehicles. He would add a $200 surcharge on drunken driving convictions and $50 extra on all moving violations. And he wants the Motor Vehicle Administration to charge more when the agency collects overdue parking fines on behalf of local jurisdictions.

That means Mr. Ehrlich would rather car owners wrote out 3-figure checks to the MVA than have all car drivers (out-of-staters included) pay an extra 5 cents per gallon at the pump. Is that fair? All so he can keep rural Republican lawmakers happy?

Plus, Mr. Ehrlich's plan requires an infusion of cash from the general fund including $32 million from the rental car sales tax and this year a $25 million repayment toward the $300 million diverted from the trust fund last year. That's $57 million that could have gone to other purposes, like full funding of the Thornton plan for schools.

But leaving aside the governor's predilection for creative accounting over common sense, the plan comes with a big question mark. What will it pay for? This administration has already made it clear that it prefers highways over mass transit.

Baltimore and Washington-area lawmakers have an obligation to see transit is not bypassed. The governor must promise them he'll move forward with the region's four transit proposals (two in suburban Washington and two around Baltimore), and that means not just planning and design but construction money, too. Should they be light rail, a rapid bus system or subway lines? That deserves to be studied, but the locations are clear - in the Baltimore area, it's the east-west (red line) route from Woodlawn to Patterson Park and the northeast (green line) extension from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University.

City legislators need to hold out for even more. The state has been cutting the city's transportation aid in recent years. That has to stop. The fact is, Mr. Ehrlich probably can't fund transportation without "yeas" from city delegates and senators. Now is the time to look out for local interests. Think of it as the Baltimore delegation's user fee.

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