Pile-Up

Maryland's transportation needs are enormous, but the money available to meet athem is limited. Even with possible added taxes and other new revenue sources, the economic, environmental and political challanges of keeping state's wheels spinning will be daunting

March 18, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff

Maryland has a tradition of stepping up to meet transportation challenges. The evidence is visible in such structures as the Bay Bridge, the tunnels under Baltimore Harbor and a network of well-maintained highways.

It doesn't come easy or cheap. Periodically, a point comes where elected officials have to tell us to dig deeper into our pockets to ease traffic jams, keep the wheels on the bus and keep the economy humming.

We're getting there again. The $27 billion in needs over a 20-year period identified by a blue-ribbon commission in 2000 has ballooned to $40 billion, driven in large part by soaring construction costs.

Traffic congestion is growing at an inexorable rate. In a way, it's a good thing. It means the region is enjoying economic growth. They'd be happy to have that problem in Michigan.

But for motorists stuck in such vehicle traps as Interstate 270 or Interstate 95 or on the Beltways around Washington and Baltimore, it represents a theft of family time and a steady erosion of quality of life.

Gov. Martin O'Malley appears ready to raise revenue before being forced to by a funding crisis. In an interview last year, he expressed admiration for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's vision in building - and paying for - the Interstate Highway System.

But today's political leaders face difficulties Ike did not. Suburban sprawl and poor land use planning have choked our roadways. In many cases, the biggest obstacle to progress is a lack of undeveloped land rather than money. Environmental concerns temper our decision-making in ways they didn't 50 years ago. Resistance to taxation - always high - is deeply entrenched and bitterly partisan.

Some problems have been shoved aside because all the solutions seem unpalatable, impractical or too expensive.

One example is the Capital Beltway, where horrendous traffic jams are routine between I-95 and I-270. In parts of this stretch, there's no right of way for the road to expand without taking the homes of people who are neither poor nor politically powerless. State leaders have essentially thrown up their hands and moved on to challenges that money may be able to solve.

That money won't come easy.

Three years ago, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. mustered the political will to propose about $300 million in new revenues - primarily generated by higher vehicle registration fees - to meet Maryland's transportation needs.

It wasn't enough. The proposal was aimed at meeting about two-thirds of the state's needs. But that was the most Ehrlich and his counselors thought was possible.

The General Assembly, skittish about portions of Ehrlich's plan, gave him about two-thirds of what he proposed.

That was far from enough. It helped get some long-stalled projects on track, but now the increase has been essentially eaten up by inflation.

So this year, O'Malley and Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari are methodically building a case for raising more transportation revenue - next year. Jumping to the head of the parade, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is calling for a 12-cent increase in the state's 23.5-cents-a- gallon gasoline tax now. But House Speaker Michael E. Busch is questioning whether the public will accept that large an increase.

The state gas tax has remained at the same rate since 1992. In historical terms, it's overdue for an increase. But Annapolis veterans still recall the agonizing two-year struggle Gov. William Donald Schaefer went through to wrestle a 5-cent increase from a Democratic General Assembly in the face of a much more imminent crisis. Politically, there's a reason it's stayed the same since then.

But there are also compelling reasons it may have to go up soon. Porcari estimates the annual gap between the state's transportation needs and the revenue available to meet them at $400 million to $600 million.

"The needs are enormous. The transportation network is literally the lifeblood of our economy, but it is also one of the yardsticks of our quality of life," he said in an interview last week.

Beyond finding money to upgrade a strained highway network, the state faces daunting transportation challenges in other areas:

Three high-profile transportation corridors - two outside Washington and Baltimore's east-west Red Line - need new mass transit service and funding to establish it. Still to be decided is which form they will take: bus or rail. If and when we build them, do we pick the technology that costs us the least money today or the one that will be most useful in 40 years? Maybe they're one and the same. Maybe not.

At some point new capacity for crossing the Chesapeake Bay will be needed. The current bridge has become the state's biggest bottleneck and a point of vulnerability. But there's no politically acceptable place to put that capacity and no way of containing its unintended consequences. No wonder a task force appointed to study the issue in 2004 essentially decided to punt.

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