Traffic pattern

November 13, 2005

Whenever a pollster asks the public to name the most important local issue, education usually wins handily. But what's ranked No. 2? In any given survey, it may be the economy, taxes, crime or health care, depending on the mood of the electorate. But in the poll conducted late last month for The Sun by Potomac Inc., the second "most important challenge" facing the state was judged to be traffic, roads and mass transit. Politicians need to take note.

It was just last year that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. persuaded lawmakers to raise vehicle fees to net an extra $237 million annually for transportation spending. It was not an insignificant tax. The cost to register a passenger car or truck in Maryland rose 58 percent to 66 percent, to as much as $180.

Even so, the increase fell far short of what was needed. Mr. Ehrlich's task force had called for raising $300 million a year along with cost-cutting and "innovative financing" to stretch the dollars in the state's transportation trust fund. But the group also acknowledged that even that was not going to meet Maryland's estimated $17.1 billion in transportation needs.

To make matters worse, the Ehrlich administration dipped into the transportation program to finance short-term deficits. And now it appears that transportation revenue is falling below expectations. The recent spike in fuel prices and weakening car sales have cost the trust fund millions. Recent concerns over federal budget deficits raise fresh worries about the prudence of borrowing from future federal highway aid to finance the $2.4 billion, 18-mile-long Intercounty Connector.

What The Sun poll makes clear is that people aren't happy with their roads and transit. Studies show Maryland workers face unusually burdensome commutes - an average of more than 30 minutes each way - and the problem is growing. The ICC alone can't cure the Washington area's traffic woes. The state's two major urban transit systems are foundering.

No matter who is elected governor of Maryland next year, it has become increasingly clear that he'll have to confront these issues. The possible solutions aren't hard to figure out. Two years ago, Mr. Ehrlich's task force outlined why a new way to finance transit (sales tax being one possibility) is needed. Even the traditional Maryland approach, raising the gas tax, is an option.

It doesn't take a poll to recognize that this state's future is tied to its quality of life - good schools, safe neighborhoods and reliable infrastructure and services. People don't like traffic jams, unsafe roads or ineffective transit. Further neglect could easily stall Maryland's economy. People have spotted the problem. When will the state's elected leaders?

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