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Maryland's unresolved transportation deficit

Local GovernmentFinanceHighway and Road TransportationExecutive BranchMaryland General Assembly

Now that the 2013 Maryland General Assembly session is in the rear-view mirror, few who travel the roads in our state can deny that one of the most important accomplishments this past session was putting in place a long-term solution to the state's enormous transportation funding challenges. With the funding package approved, at least one part of a looming crisis was solved — providing new revenue for much-needed state transportation projects.

However, as the voice of Maryland's cities and towns, the Maryland Municipal League is concerned that what has not yet been resolved is the need for a lasting, more permanent solution on funding future municipal transportation projects.

After five straight years with significantly reduced funding, Gov. Martin O'Malley added $15 million to the fiscal year 2014 budget for municipal transportation-related projects. This brought the total to $23 million for next year to be shared among 156 cities and towns.

The Maryland General Assembly ultimately approved the funding recommended by the Governor in next year's budget. Make no mistake, it was extremely welcome news for so many cities and towns around the state that have gone largely without those funds for the past five years. The Maryland Municipal League applauds the administration and legislature for the additional consideration.

But a bit of history is in order to truly put the issue in perspective. Since 1947, all municipal governments in Maryland that maintain roads have received what is referred to as highway user revenues. These funds are derived through the state's collection of the gasoline tax and other revenue sources, such as vehicle registrations and titling fees. Through its distribution both to counties and municipalities, the highway user revenue program has funneled billions of dollars, over many years, to help fund vital local road projects.

The state's long-established formula-based method for funding municipal road projects through highway user revenues is distinctly different than competitive grants, whereby local governments must apply and compete for a specific allocation of monies to fund local projects. Over time, the amount designated for the municipalities through this formula grew on a gradual basis, until reaching a historic high of approximately $45 million in fiscal 2008 — the last year that the highway user revenue program was fully funded.

Then came the economic crash and, for several years in a row, the revenues that were designated for the municipalities were almost completely eliminated. That's why this year's increase to $23 million — although still only about half of what municipalities received annually six years ago — was an encouraging step in the right direction.

One of our primary concerns is that some lawmakers seem to be indicating a preference to a shift away from the use of the long-standing formula in state law that determines the distribution of highway user revenues. This would be a huge departure from a system that has served both the state and the municipalities well for nearly 70 years. And it would result in a far less predictable and reliable distribution of funding, making it far more difficult for cities and towns to plan for their road maintenance and construction projects.

One of Maryland's strengths has always been the fact that state and local governments work together, with shared responsibility for the well-being of our residents. Because it takes money to solve problems, we strongly believe that shared revenue must continue to be a part of that shared responsibility. In fact, the final report of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation in 2012 stressed that a top priority must be to make local governments funding whole.

"My way or the highway" — pun intended — has never been the approach of Maryland's cities and towns. We have worked in true partnership with the state for several years to weather a fiscal crisis that has devastated all of our budgets and led to a backlog of so many badly needed infrastructure projects, all around Maryland. We look forward to building on that partnership by working out a mutually beneficial solution to this remaining issue.

Now that we have a long-term funding solution in place for the state, let's not change the terms of a partnership that has, for decades, served all of our residents — and roads — so well.

Judith F. "J" Davis is the mayor of Greenbelt and the current president of the Maryland Municipal League, the statewide association that serves Maryland's 157 cities and towns, and two special taxing districts. Her email is jdavis@greenbeltmd.gov.

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