O'Malley-Ehrlich transportation gulf is wide

Incumbent would build light rail

challenger would scrap it

October 02, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

This time around, in their rematch for governor, the differences between Martin O'Malley and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on transportation issues are stark.

Unlike 2006, when the two substantially agreed on the state's largest road project, in 2010 the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger are at odds on billion-dollar decisions that could determine how Marylanders will get from place to place for decades to come.

If O'Malley is re-elected, he will almost certainly keep Maryland on a course toward construction of two long-sought but expensive light rail systems — the $1.8 billion Red Line in Baltimore and the $1.6 billion Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. As governor, Ehrlich supported the planning process on both lines, but has turned against them as proposed by O'Malley. The Republican has vowed to scuttle light rail on both lines, saying rapid bus lines are his preferred choice.

The two candidates, both of whom answered questions from The Baltimore Sun last week, also have significant differences over the question of financing transportation. O'Malley expressed his views in a face-to-face interview, while Ehrlich provided written answers to questions submitted by the newspaper.

For Ehrlich, the transit issue has complicated his relationship with business leaders, who tend otherwise to be receptive to Republican appeals. In the populous suburbs of Washington, the influential Greater Washington Board of Trade is an enthusiastic supporter of light rail on the Purple Line. The Greater Baltimore Committee is equally committed to O'Malley's plan for the Red Line.

The Board of Trade, which supported Ehrlich in his 2002 and 2006 runs for governor, cited the Purple Line last week when it threw its endorsement to O'Malley. The GBC does not endorse candidates, but has expressed misgivings about Ehrlich's stance on the Red Line.

In the past, both men have shown a willingness to raise revenues for transportation — O'Malley through taxation in 2007, and Ehrlich in the form of fees in 2004.

In the 2007 special General Assembly session called to deal with budget issues, O'Malley raised about $400 million a year for transportation by raising the titling tax and by increasing the sales tax and devoting a part of the proceeds to the Transportation Trust Fund. The fund, which collects roughly $2.7 billion in state funds each year to pay for transportation infrastructure, has been under severe pressure in recent years to keep up with growing demand for maintenance and expansion.

Ehrlich has vowed to roll back the sales tax increase from 6 percent to 5 percent, though he indicated he would continue to dedicate a percentage to transportation. He estimated that the rollback would cost the Transportation Trust Fund no more than $48 million each year — a number he called "manageable." He said he has no plans to cut the titling tax, which is, in effect, a sales tax on cars.

The two governors' priorities — expressed in hard dollars — also have differed significantly. O'Malley has brought about a clear shift in projected capital spending away from highways and in favor of transit projects.

In Ehrlich's last transportation plan as governor, the state projected capital spending of roughly 28 cents on the Maryland Transit Administration — which administers buses, light rail, the Baltimore Metro and MARC — for every dollar spent on highways in fiscal 2008. O'Malley's plan for 2012 calls for spending 50 cents on the MTA for every dollar on the highways.

In four years under O'Malley the percentage of capital transportation funding directed to highways has declined from 54 percent to 48 percent. Meanwhile the combined total for the MTA and Washington Metro system has grown from 28 percent to 35 percent.

O'Malley said the shift is consistent with the platform he campaigned on in 2006. He added that as two major road projects — the Intercounty Connector and the express tolls lanes on Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore — wind down, and if the proposed light rail lines move forward as expected later this decade, the shift could become more pronounced.

"We can't build enough roads to ease the congestion that's coming," he said. "We have to find other options."

Ehrlich said O'Malley's spending on transit is "out of balance'" because the governor has wasted millions of dollars on planning light rail systems that he said "can't be built without massive tax increases."

"My administration would restore the balance between working on transit and highways by setting realistic priorities," he said.

O'Malley has also held the line on bus and rail fares at a time when transit agencies across the country have been charging more for their services. He said he hopes to keep fares stable for another four years in the hope of attracting more riders, with the goal of doubling ridership.

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