Pothole politics could drive gas tax rise

Hit to localities' highway funds taking a toll on roads

  • Baltimore City Department of Transportation workers, including Barry Coleman (center), repair potholes along the 6100 block of Boston Street. Large potholes have developed on many city streets, due to the heavy equipment plowing needed to clear the more than 70 inches of snow left by several severe snow storms.
Baltimore City Department of Transportation workers, including… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
February 28, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

A few years ago, when Maryland's economy was cruising along and the tax money was rolling in, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman could count on receiving about $16 million a year from the state to keep local roads in good repair.

But this year, like the year before, he didn't even get $500,000. And unless the state can tap into a new stream of money, things aren't looking much better for 2012.

Howard County's story is typical of jurisdictions across Maryland. With the exception of Baltimore City, every jurisdiction in the state has seen its road repair money slashed by about 97 percent from levels in budget year 2007.

And the possible consequences for Marylanders include not just a proliferation of potholes, but also talk of a gasoline-tax increase at a time when fuel prices are already soaring.

Roads across Maryland face dire prospects as the state approaches a third year of the virtual elimination of local highway aid. County repaving projects have all but halted, and local leaders warn that they won't be able to hold off the potholes much longer.

Ulman, now serving a term as chairman of the Maryland Association of Counties, said Howard's road resurfacing efforts have essentially been "zeroed out" for the past two years as state budget woes reduced local jurisdictions' share of the state's Transportation Trust Fund from 30 percent to about 10 percent — with most of that going to Baltimore City.

"This is a serious issue for counties," he said. "If we don't find a way to get back to the 30 percent soon, you're going to see roads throughout Maryland deteriorated."

The condition of local roads is one reason Marylanders may soon see leaders of the state's largest counties lining up behind a gas tax increase. Unlike other sources of transportation revenue, the motor fuel tax has remained frozen at 23.5 cents a gallon for almost two decades. And with the state's general fund in such poor shape that local highway revenues could be diverted to balance the budget for a third straight year, it's unclear where money can be found to repair roads without raising taxes.

Under the state Constitution, the general fund must be balanced each year, but there is no requirement that the state maintain any minimum level of transportation spending. Thus, when the recession cut deeply into state revenues, local transportation funds proved to be an irresistible source of money to fill the general fund gap.

The state has siphoned money from that particular well to deal with previous budget shortfalls. Under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., about $250 million was taken in 2005-2006.

But those diversions look picayune compared with the ones that have taken place under Gov. Martin O'Malley since the nation plunged into a recession in 2008-2009. If the current budget goes through as planned, the state will have diverted about $1 billion in road funds from localities to the general fund over three budget years.

That's why Baltimore County saw a reduction of its state aid for road repair from $43.2 million in 2007 to an expected $1.3 million in 2012. Anne Arundel County, once the recipient of more than $30 million, has staggered along with less that $1 million in recent years. The numbers in Harford and Carroll look a lot like Howard's.

The tale in Baltimore City is only marginally better.

The city has lost 45 percent of its previous aid as its share of state highway user funds fell from $226 million in 2007 to $124 million projected for 2012 — a much less drastic cut than the counties have absorbed. But the city, unlike the counties, is responsible for maintaining almost all of the numbered state roads within its boundaries. Those include such major arteries as Edmondson Avenue (U.S. 40), York Road (Route 45) and Reisterstown Road (Route 140), which carry traffic loads far heavier than those found on most county-maintained roads.

In recent years, Baltimore has paved about 200 lane-miles a year. After a long stretch during which city roads were visibly deteriorating, motorists became accustomed to seeing signs announcing another project under "Operation Orange Cone."

Until recently, Baltimore transportation officials were projecting a cutback to about 70 lane-miles of repaving in the budget year that begins July 1. But Jamie Kendrick, the city's deputy transportation director, said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration has found a way to keep up its repaving momentum for one more year.

"We have scrimped and saved and found old money and you name it, we've done it," Kendrick said. "The mayor's committed to do it because she knows it's of real value to quality of life in our neighborhoods."

But as of July 2012, Kendrick said, "all bets are off." He said the city has some urgent bridge reconstruction projects that will kick in that year — on Edmondson Avenue and Waterview and Annapolis roads — that will absorb most of the city's road-repair resources for the next two years.

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