If Maryland is to raise significant new revenue to meet its backlog of transportation needs — most likely through a higher gas tax — 2012 is the year it must be done, a leading lawmaker told a gathering of Baltimore business leaders Monday.
Speaking at the Greater Baltimore Committee's annual transportation summit, state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola warned that any political will to raise money for highways, transit and other transportation needs will dwindle as legislators approach the 2014 state elections.
"They're going to be even more skittish as we get to 2013 and 2014," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Garagiola was one of several speakers who called for increased investment in transportation at both the state and federal levels, warning that the United States and Maryland were falling behind in quality of infrastructure.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, warned that transportation advocates face a challenge in simply maintaining the current level of federal contributions because of Republican resistance to spending.
Van Hollen, one of 12 lawmakers appointed to a congressional committee charged with making $1.5 trillion in federal budget cuts over the next decade, said the top priority in the short term was not deficit reduction but "to get the economy going again and get people back to work."
With unemployment in the construction sector running at about 14 percent, he said, transportation infrastructure is a good place to start.
For two years, a new, six-year transportation reauthorization bill has been stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, federal transportation programs — primarily in the form of aid to the states — have continued under a series of short-term extensions. The most recent allowed funding to continue for the next six months, but the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate are moving in different directions on a longer-term bill.
In the House, the Republican majority has been crafting a proposal that would cut federal transportation funding by more than 30 percent from current levels by holding spending only to the amount of revenue raised by the federal gas tax.
"That is a huge cut at a time when we have big infrastructure needs and huge unemployment in this sector," Van Hollen said. But he predicted that even some Republican members would balk at cuts of that magnitude.
"Something's got to give in this process, and I'm hoping that cooler heads will prevail," he said.
One of the key issues at the federal level, as well as in Annapolis, is the reluctance of lawmakers to vote for increases in the gas tax. The federal tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon, and Maryland's at 23.5 cents a gallon, since the early 1990s.
What was once a fairly routine vote every few years to raise the tax to keep up with inflation has become increasingly difficult, as the Democratic and Republican parties have become increasingly polarized over fiscal issues.
Garagiola serves on a commission set up by the General Assembly to make recommendations on transportation funding. That panel is scheduled to issue a final report by the end of the year, but during this year's legislative session it issued an interim report calling on lawmakers to raise an additional $800 million in transportation revenue annually.
The legislature did not take action on the recommendation, and Garagiola said that "$800 million is a very heavy lift" for next year as well.
Garagiola said the total could be reached with a 10-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, a rise in the vehicle registration fee and the resulting increase in the state's bonding capacity.
State Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said Maryland's revenue collections were running far short of what is required to chip away at the state's long list of deferred transportation programs. She said that paying for the No. 1 priority project in each of the state's 24 jurisdictions would cost about $12 billion.
The General Assembly plans to meet in a special session next month, but Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislative leaders have ruled out taking up the revenue issue before January's regular session.
If the Assembly does raise the gas tax, it will likely do so without any Republican votes. Democrats control the state House and Senate by enough votes to pass such a measure, but many in the majority are reluctant to hand the GOP an issue it could use against them in 2014.
James A. Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, said he's disappointed the issue wasn't on the agenda for the special session, which will focus on redistricting.
Russ, who said unemployment in Maryland's highway construction business was running much higher than the 14 percent figure cited by Van Hollen, said his industry was looking to the governor to take the lead on a revenue increase.
"If the governor wants the gas tax passed, it'll get passed," Russ said. "The governor is the guy that's got to pull this together."
The uncertainly of pulling together the votes for a significant increase is prompting officials to consider less conventional forms of financing, such as public-private partnerships and regional tax districts.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who noted that local governments maintain about 80 percent of Maryland's roads but have had to swallow large cuts in state highway aid in recent years, said such partnerships can help but are not a panacea.
If other solutions don't pan out, Ulman said the state might have to look at setting up regional authorities to raise revenue and carry out transportation projects. Such a move would be a departure from Maryland's current, highly centralized transportation funding structure.