Transportation plan by Ehrlich in trouble

Urban lawmakers want more for mass transit

General Assembly

March 05, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Some of Maryland's leading urban legislators are vowing to oppose Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s $320 million-a-year proposal to raise money for transportation projects unless he corrects what they perceive as a tilt away from mass transit and toward building roads.

Democrats say the concerns run deep enough among Washington- and Baltimore-area lawmakers -- who together make up a majority in the Senate and House of Delegates -- that Ehrlich's transportation revenue package could be defeated if priorities aren't changed.

"Transit needs have to come into play," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "I believe they're going to have a hard time getting the votes."

Signs that Ehrlich's proposal could be in jeopardy grew yesterday when a coalition of groups that support mass transit called on lawmakers to oppose the legislation unless the emphasis is changed.

"I don't think it's going through without urban votes," said Dan Pontious, spokesman for the Maryland Transit Coalition.

His group is pressing for specific commitments of revenue, including money for planning and engineering extended transit systems and limits on fare increases.

The coalition is also demanding that the administration drop its steadfast opposition to an east-west rail line in Baltimore.

The leaders of Baltimore's House and Senate delegations, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Salima S. Marriott, predicted city lawmakers would unite in opposition to the bill if the city's transit needs are not met.

"If we don't get that rail line, the city delegation will not be supporting this," Marriott said.

Her comments were echoed by legislators from suburban Washington.

"There is a consensus that there isn't enough in there for mass transit as opposed to roads," said Del. Charles E. Barkley, chairman of Montgomery County's House delegation.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, testifying yesterday in support of the governor's legislation, rejected the premise that the Ehrlich administration is hostile to mass transit.

"We have made a great commitment to improving transit in Baltimore -- both in the short term and the long term," he told the House Environmental Matters and Ways and Means committees.

However, Flanagan said that while Maryland's level of support for public transit has been excellent, its investment in roads has declined to 47th in the country. "The rising gap there is a lack of investment in highways," he said.

In public hearings, Flanagan has been careful to stress the importance of a balance between investment in roads and mass transit.

But Democratic legislators have been concerned by comments from GOP colleagues indicating that Ehrlich and Flanagan have promised a strong pro-highway tilt in private meetings.

The revenue package also faces questions over Ehrlich's choices of how to raise the money to reach the goal of $300 million a year in new revenue set by a commission headed by former Transportation Secretary William K. Hellmann.

The proposal was largely tailored to suit the preferences of rural and outer suburban Republican legislators, who account for fewer than a third of the votes in each House.

Ehrlich did not propose an increase in the gasoline tax and relies on increases in vehicle registration fees for about half of the revenue to reach the goal.

To raise the rest of the money, Ehrlich proposes a patchwork of smaller sources, including $51 million in surcharges on drunken driving and other fines.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a likely Democratic gubernatorial contender, told lawmakers that the package fails to reach the goal set by the Hellmann commission.

"There's a lot of funny money there," Duncan said. "You can't count on those revenues coming in at the level they're forecasting."

Duncan's contention found some support in an analysis prepared by the Department of Legislative Services, which said the administration had overestimated the amount it could collect in court surcharges by $15.6 million.

The analysts put the actual amount of new revenue at $201 million.

Unlike the administration, it did not count $96 million from increased borrowing, transfers from the general fund, more optimistic forecasts and an anticipated tax settlement with out-of-state companies.

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