For almost a decade, the Maryland business community has urged the legislature to raise revenue to invest in our state's clogged transportation infrastructure.
And for good reason. The Baltimore area is the fifth most traffic-congested in America — and the Washington area is No. 1. As nations like China build high-speed rail and cities from Portland to Dallas expand light rail, Maryland continues to fall behind even in repairing potholes and bridges.
The need is clear. But the strategy to meet it is stuck in the 1970s. That's when Maryland took the progressive step of combining its highway and transit agencies into one department. Gas taxes, car registrations and transit fares all went into one account used to invest in transportation improvements. As more money was needed, the legislature would raise it, using the opportunity to informally ratify priorities.
I came to the House of Delegates in 1987. That was the year we raised the gas tax to fund expansion of I-270, build Baltimore's light rail and extend Metrorail to Greenbelt. Again, in 1992, we passed a big transportation revenue package, leaving the details of project selection to informal negotiations between legislators and the governor.
But that was the last increase in the gas tax and the last big transportation package. Twenty years ago.
Since then, the General Assembly has passed small programs — to build the Intercounty Connector with tolls and to keep up with highway repairs and transit planning. But these have fallen far short of the need. The result has been world-class traffic congestion, which irritates citizens and retards economic growth.
For the last few years, Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Millerhas championed legislation to raise the gas tax. It has failed because oil prices have risen and public trust in government priorities has fallen. This year, it failed again because most legislators were convinced — rightly — that most voters won't support a gas tax increase to pay for transportation investments they are only vaguely aware of. Such an increase is unlikely to be taken up in a special session.
What is to be done?
We need a new, more transparent strategy for transportation investment. Unlike Maryland, many states fund major transportation projects from bonds authorized in voter referendums. The state's leadership draws up a plan and asks the voters to approve it.
The revenue sources may be the gas tax — or sales tax, property tax, or other revenue. The key is that the revenue is tied to specific projects, and the voters — not the politicians and bureaucrats — get to decide if the benefits are worth the costs. In just the last three years, in the midst of the Great Recession and rising gas prices, voters in 18 states have passed 74 transportation investment programs.
Maryland can learn something from them. After 20 years of waiting for the politicians to decide the time is right to raise revenue for transportation, it time to put the issue to the citizens. Unfortunately, under Maryland's constitution, putting this challenge to the people is easier said than done. It will require a constitutional amendment allowing the governor and the legislature to call a referendum on a transportation investment program.
But that's no reason not to do it. Five years ago, the legislature proposed a constitutional amendment to let the people decide on legalizing slots gambling in Maryland, and they approved it.
The first step would be for the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment to authorize a referendum on a major traffic-busting transportation plan. We could do it in a special session this year and put in on this November's ballot. Or we could wait until next year and propose it for Election Day 2014.
If it is approved, the governor and legislative leaders should convene a group, including private-sector representatives, to draw up a plan to put to the voters. It should be both bold enough to inspire confidence that it will a game-changer, reducing traffic congestion and driving smart growth, and practical enough that voters can understand why the benefits are worth the costs.
Our current transportation funding model has clearly failed to keep pace with our economic needs. It's time for a new approach: Asking our people to make the big choices.