Fuel for progress

February 18, 2004|By Donald C. Fry and Robert A. Peck

MUCH HAS BEEN said and written over the years about the perennial rivalry between the Baltimore and Washington regions. Conventional wisdom insists that, while we can coexist temporarily to accomplish a shared goal, we are ultimately disjoined by cultural differences, history and a fierce competition for political influence and state money.

It's time to update the conventional wisdom.

Our elected officials and civic leaders are working closely today to enhance our public schools and universities, make Maryland a global hub for the life sciences and to inspire renaissance in our older neighborhoods. Due in part to this cooperation, Maryland is one of the wealthiest and best-educated states in the United States with one of the nation's lowest poverty rates.

But we face a common crisis that could undo much of this progress. Our transportation system has not kept pace with the times. Plans for highways, bridges and transit lines that should have been built years ago are now collecting dust, while the network we have in place is overwhelmed by the demands of a 21st century economy and the population growth that comes with it.

Residents of Greater Baltimore are saddled with an incomplete transit system, one that fails to serve many of our biggest suburban employment centers and residential communities and does little to move Baltimore riders across town. Meanwhile, people who live in Montgomery and Prince George's counties travel every day in the nation's third-worst traffic congestion or ride a Metro system that is filled to capacity.

Both of our regions need new highways and transit lines. Just as important, we need to repair and maintain the assets we already have in order to ensure the safety of our transportation users.

A blue-ribbon task force, the Hellmann commission, reported Dec. 23 just how expensive all of that will be. The state's Transportation Trust Fund -- dedicated solely for Maryland's transportation programs and sustained by gasoline taxes and user fees, such as titling taxes and vehicle registrations -- needs $1.8 billion in new money simply to cover two-thirds of our needs through 2010. This means that we need $300 million a year, and we need it fast. The fund has $1.8 billion available for capital improvements this fiscal year, but the report predicts it will decline to $1.2 billion by 2006 and to $900,000 by 2008 if nothing is done.

We believe it's time to rebuild the trust fund by increasing the gas tax. The gas tax, which has remained at 23.5 cents per gallon for the last 12 years, is an equitable way to raise money for transportation. Unlike other options considered by the commission, the gas tax ensures that those who use our transportation system the most will pay the most to keep it operable. The long-distance commuter who logs 500 highway miles a week should pay more to fill potholes and build interchanges than the senior who drives to the supermarket once a week.

The gas tax, which raises about $30 million for every penny levied, is the only option that generates revenue from out-of-state drivers. Drivers from other states create just as much wear and tear as those with Maryland tags. Why should they be excused from paying their fair share?

The state must raise the $300 million it needs each year, as a bare minimum, bringing us closer to the ultimate goal of a fully-funded transportation program. While we favor a gas tax as the centerpiece of any increased transportation funding, we do understand there are differences of opinion on this matter, and that any funding strategy must balance the competing interests of a very diverse state.

However, we feel very strongly that any new revenues for the trust fund must be allocated equitably between highways and mass transit. While the Washington region urgently needs the Intercounty Connector and Greater Baltimore will benefit from a widened Beltway, neither region can sustain long-term growth without a combination of new rail and bus lines, along with major improvements to our existing systems.

Failure to expand transit access and capacity will eventually place unbearable pressure on a highway network that is already oversubscribed.

An effective transit system is a necessary part of any congestion relief strategy, which is why the trust fund must remain fully integrated.

This is a must-win effort for both of our regions and for Maryland. It is one that our respective business communities can, and will, join as unified stakeholders. It may not be the juiciest story for those who enjoy a good regional conflict, but it should be welcome news for people just trying to get to work.

Donald C. Fry is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. Robert A. Peck is president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

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