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Miller says state must act now to fund transportation

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller testified Wednesday that Maryland's shortage of funds for transportation projects is a crisis that needs to be addressed now.

Appearing before the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee, Miller said his proposed legislation to raise money for transportation was intended as a menu of options for Gov. Martin O'Malley. Among other provisions, Miller's bill would add a 3 percent sales tax to gasoline and allow the counties and Baltimore to add up to 5 cents a gallon to the state's 23.5 cents-a-gallon gas tax to pay for local projects.

He said that his bill is intended to jump-start the discussion and that he isn't wedded to any particular provision as long as the state finds a way to pay for new roads, bridges and mass transit.

"It's not just a quality-of-life issue. It's an issue of economic development," Miller said. "It's not just a problem, it's a crisis."

Also testifying were Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, each of whom said there's a dire need for additional transportation resources. Rawlings-Blake said that of the 272 bridges the city maintains, 33 are structurally deficient and 88 are functionally obsolete.

"We can't kick the can down the road. We can't wait for next year or the year after that," Baker said. He noted that his county is competing with Virginia — where lawmakers are considering a transportation revenue package — to be the site of the FBI's headquarters.

By 2018, Miller warned, there will be no money available in Maryland's transportation budget for highway expansion projects unless new revenue is found.

His bill seeks to address rural legislators' long-standing concern about the high cost of mass transit by allowing the formation of regional transit authorities in urban areas that would have the power to raise taxes for major projects.

The Maryland Department of Transportation estimated in written testimony that the state needs $400 million a year for transit, $125 million for system maintenance and $275 million each year toward the roughly $5 billion it will take to build two light rail projects — the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

While the O'Malley administration has not taken a position on Miller's legislation, the Transportation Department in written testimony called the creation of transit authorities "a concept that merits consideration."

That provision was criticized Tuesday by House Republicans, bringing a rebuke from Miller, a Calvert County Democrat.

"The Republicans have simply said 'no, no, no, no,'" Miller said.

While Republicans on the Senate committee did not embrace the transit authority proposal, neither did they reject it.

"We want to be part of the solution. We have some real problems here," said Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican.

Miller's effort drew praise from Maryland business leaders, especially those involved in construction.

"The General Assembly has to act. That is essentially why you were put in office," said Champe McCulloch, representing the Associated General Contractors.

michael.dresser @baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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