Highway robbery

Our view: Legislature turns its back on traffic woes

April 14, 2008

Baltimore's port would benefit from the planned resurfacing of Broening Highway. Too bad the project is likely to be shelved. The proposed new interchange on Interstate 795 at Owings Mills' Dolfield Road? Probably not going to happen anytime soon. Ditto for revitalization of U.S. 40 in Baltimore County - and dozens of other highway and transit projects.

That's the consequence of the General Assembly's decision to take hundreds of millions of dollars out of the transportation trust fund to help balance the state's general fund budget. Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari says the legislature's actions will mean about one-third less spending on new state highway and transit projects.

Commuters should be outraged by the legislature's shortsighted thievery. To partly offset the revocation of the computer sales tax, light-fingered lawmakers decided to purloin $50 million per year from the transportation fund for five years. But because the fund was also slated to receive a portion of the computer services tax, the effect is more like $72 million next year and growing.

Gov. Martin O'Malley calls the decision "two steps back" after last fall's special session, when lawmakers raised taxes to increase transportation funding more than $400 million per year. But it's worse than it sounds. More than half that revenue was needed simply to maintain existing roads and transit.

At a time when the state is trying to gear up for an influx of military jobs from the federal base realignment and closure decisions, such investment is particularly important. It doesn't help that projected trust fund revenue is in decline because of the slowing economy.

We can't claim the transportation budget hasn't been shortchanged before. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. raided the fund, too, but at least that money is gradually being returned. Lawmakers gave no such assurances this time.

As Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry has warned, the state needs a steady and reliable transportation fund - it can't be used as a cookie jar. Even without this setback, Mr. Fry and others have questioned whether the state is spending enough to address traffic congestion.

And matters could get worse. The federal highway trust fund is nearly depleted, too. Without that money, new road and transit projects could truly become scarce.

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