Md. transportation at a crossroads

May 24, 2012

The quiet, staggering problem at the center of the General Assembly's gasoline tax debate was this: Maryland does not have the money to maintain our transportation system ("Unfinished business," May 16).

In the fervor, it was easy to miss the reason for the debate. The crisis began when we consumers, in response to the recession, turned to cars with better gas mileage, to carpooling, to transit — any means to decrease our own pain at the pump. The Transportation Trust Fund, already weakened from regular budget raiding, was further diminished as the main funding stream, the per-gallon tax, dwindled.

This transportation funding crisis hamstrings not only rural regions like my Eastern Shore that are deeply dependent on our roads and bridges, but it is a limiting factor for the future vibrancy of our urban areas. Hectic, long commutes, safety concerns, and poor alternatives thwart healthy growth in cities.

A number of fixes for short-term relief have been debated unsuccessfully. But we left off the table some important, long-term solutions that do more than kick the can down the road. The long-view is needed now.

Whether we are talking about new or existing funding, tight, fiscally-prudent criteria on transportation spending are needed. Criteria should focus our investments to those needs most pressing and those that serve the most people. For example, investment in Shore Transit and Maryland Upper Shore Transit is sorely needed today to serve those unable to drive, and tomorrow as an opportunity for the broader population. For our communities, investment in walk-ability and bike-ability is essential to minimize traffic and for our health.

To fix the longest term culprit for transportation funding, we need smarter, more sustainable land use planning. Consider this: The Maryland Department of Planning tells us that in the next 20 years Maryland will add one million new residents, 400,000 new homes, and 600,000 new jobs. If planned smartly — as in, locating these homes and jobs in existing cities and towns — we can save about one-third of road construction and maintenance costs. The bottom line is a savings of about $39 billion dollars over 20 years. This equals roughly $5,800 in transportation savings for every man, woman, and child in Maryland.

The easy times for transportation funding are over. Maryland can use this funding crisis to create a smart, more sustainable transportation system. We must continue this public debate about transportation funding, and we must do so with consideration for the world we want to leave for our children.

Rob Etgen, Queenstown

The writer is executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and served on Maryland's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding.

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