Paying the full fare

October 16, 2006

Improving local transit service is a top priority for the Greater Baltimore Committee, so the regional business group asked the two major candidates for governor what they plan to do about it. The results of their questionnaire were notable. While both men pledged to spend more money on public transit, neither Martin O'Malley nor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. offered much in the way of specifics about how to pay for it.

This remains the crux of the problem. The Baltimore region's need for a better, more complete transit operation is unquestionable - just take a look at the platforms of most candidates for public office this year. People want a viable option to driving their cars on traffic-clogged highways, and the recent spike in gas prices and the thousands of jobs coming to the area under the planned base realignments and closings have brought a new sense of urgency to the issue.

But in Maryland, the state's transportation trust fund is the primary source of transit financing. That pot has grown in recent years - thanks chiefly to Mr. Ehrlich's doubling of vehicle registration fees - but not nearly enough to cover both transit and highway needs. Even the Red Line, the proposed Canton-Woodlawn transit line that the GBC and others have been craving for years, is no sure thing. Baltimore lawmakers may have forced Mr. Ehrlich to commit $250 million toward it (in return for backing his fee increase several years ago), but the project is probably going to cost four times that amount. At the moment, the money just isn't there.

In his response to the GBC, Mr. Ehrlich writes that he wants to improve existing transit services, but other than the insufficiently financed Red Line, he offers no expansion plans. Mr. O'Malley would invest not only in the Red Line but also in an additional Green Line connecting Johns Hopkins Hospital with Morgan State University by subway, as well as make improvements to buses and commuter trains. But while the candidate chides Mr. Ehrlich for raiding the trust fund to balance the state budget, Mr. O'Malley promises only to "explore a dedicated revenue source for transit" in the future.

A legislative task force is scheduled to convene later this month to study that very thing. Maryland's next governor will have to take those findings to heart. Raising the gas tax (an unpopular idea in these uncertain times), adding a penny to the state sales tax or giving transit a bigger share of corporate taxes are among the options.

Transit offers the potential for revitalizing Baltimore, connecting the city's too-numerous unemployed to jobs, ensuring cleaner air, strengthening neighborhoods and accommodating growth. That's too important a mission to be treated as mere election-year talking points.

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