A wrong turn

Our view : The loss of MARC trains and other transit cutbacks to falling tax revenues is not only ill-timed but a sign that Maryland must rethink how transportation is financed

October 27, 2008

After nearly two years of negotiation with Amtrak, the Maryland Transit Administration happily added evening MARC commuter train service between Baltimore and Washington one year ago. With high gasoline prices, the rail line had lured record numbers of new customers, and the expansion offered two additional round-trips' worth of relief to standing-room-only crowds.

This month, officials announced they will temporarily suspend the new service beginning in January - not from a lack of riders but from a lack of money. The state transportation trust fund is running too low on revenue to afford them.

As big a blow as the state's overall budget has taken from the ailing economy, the transportation segment is getting hit even harder. That's because transit and road projects are financed largely by an automobile economy that's gotten doubly walloped by the recession and credit crisis.

Taxes on gasoline and car sales, titling and registration fees, all have taken it on the chin because people aren't buying cars and they're driving less. More than $1 billion in upgrades have been slashed from the six-year transportation capital projects plan, and now operating funds are coming under the knife, too.

Public transportation ought to be the last thing cut, at least after needed maintenance and repair to existing roads and bridges. State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari says that's exactly what's been done, and the MTA can't be ignored in the budget-cutting process.

It's meant the elimination of some suburban bus lines and less overtime for drivers, too. Officials think the latter can be ameliorated (although some additional service disruptions are likely). But the loss of commuter buses will surely be felt.

The recession isn't the only thing to blame for this misfortune. The MTA might have avoided these cuts if lawmakers hadn't made some bad choices - refusing to index the state gasoline tax to inflation last year was one. Another was removing $65 million from the trust fund to help balance the general fund budget when the 6 percent tax on computer services was eliminated this spring.

The gas tax decision is particularly galling. Indexing would have caused consumers to pay perhaps one penny per gallon more at the pump this year, a truly inconsequential price considering how far gas prices have fallen over the past few months.

Maryland needs to invest more in public transit, not less. Nationally, bus and rail systems are witnessing the best ridership growth since World War II. That's a trend that ought to be encouraged, even it requires reinventing how we must pay for it.

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