Local governments to push state to restore highway funds

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and county government leaders say they will press the General Assembly to restore hundreds of millions of dollars a year in funding for local transportation projects. But state lawmakers say that's going to be a tough sell.

The legislature began siphoning money collected from the gas tax and motor vehicle fees to balance the state budget in the aftermath of the recession. Lawmakers declined to reverse the change as part of last session's debate on Maryland's long-term transportation plan.

In the past several years, Rawlings-Blake said, the city missed out on $440 million for road maintenance and construction as Annapolis kept a larger share of the transportation revenue.

"When you take a look around and you get frustrated at the pace of road improvement, you have to take that into consideration, that our funding level has been reduced," she said. "That has an impact."

For decades, local governments got roughly 30 percent of the money raised from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, together called "highway user revenue." But the proportion was cut to less than 10 percent in 2010.

The General Assembly's decision to alter the funding distribution was one of the primary structural budget adjustments made in response to the recession. Many state lawmakers see undoing the decision as economically unfeasible. The legislature begins its annual 90-day session Jan. 8.

Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel Democrat who chairs a key Senate budget subcommittee, said it is unlikely that the state will send extra cash to the fund that gives local jurisdictions money for roads.

"I doubt that locals are going to get that restored this year," DeGrange said, though he said the gas tax increase will help pay for large projects — such as the Dover Bridge over the Choptank River between Talbot and Caroline counties — that have been on the back burner for years.

His comments echoed those of other leaders who were quizzed about highway money at a recent Maryland Association of Counties meeting in Cambridge.

Gov. Martin O'Malley drew applause when he used the phrase "highway user revenue" in a speech, but he offered no specific plan to return money to local governments. Asked about  the issue the next day, O'Malley's chief legislative officer, Jeanne Hitchcock, told county officials, "We value your partnership, and we're doing the best that we can."

In 2007, Baltimore and the counties divided more than $500 million in highway user revenue, but the local share dropped to $167.5 million in the current fiscal year. The state is expected to bring in a total of $1.75 billion in such revenue this year.

The loss of funding was nearly $100 million for Baltimore, which is responsible for maintaining all the roads within its borders except Interstates 95 and 895. The state sent the city nearly $227 million in 2007, compared with $134 million in the current budget.

Meanwhile, Anne Arundel County's share dropped from $32 million to $3 million and Baltimore County went from $43 million to less than $4 million. Carroll County's share dropped from $14.5 million to $1.5 million, Harford County's from $16.6 million to $1.7 million and Howard County's from $15.9 million to $1.5 million.

Michael Sanderson, director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said pushing for restoration of the money is the group's top legislative initiative. While the gas tax legislation will provide an infusion of cash for road projects statewide, the Assembly did not permanently restore the share going toward local governments.

Historically, the state kept 70 percent of highway user revenue and sent 30 percent to be divided among local governments based on road mileage and vehicle registrations. But amid an ongoing budget crisis, the legislature in 2010 decided to change the distribution formula, keeping 71.5 percent for the Transportation Department, 19.3 percent for the general fund, 7.5 percent for Baltimore and the rest, 1.7 percent, for the counties.

Sanderson contends that as new money starts coming in as part of the increased gas tax, the legislature should return a greater share to local governments. The tax on gasoline will increase in stages through mid-2016, and the first 3.5-cent increase took effect last summer.

"Now is the time to come up with a plan," he said. Local governments "are still sitting on the starvation budget."

The consequences for local governments have been severe, Sanderson said.

"We're down to 5 or 10 cents on the dollar," he said. "Local governments just don't have funds for anything but bare-bones maintenance and emergency patching. We're seeing counties saying, 'We can't make this investment in public safety or parks or the environment because we have to take money to patch potholes.' "

In Baltimore, the loss of highway user funds was one of the biggest hits to the city's budget in recent years, according to the mayor's office. The city dealt with that loss and others by reducing capital spending, laying off or furloughing staff, freezing pay, closing fire companies and reducing library hours and the swimming pool season.

Rawlings-Blake said she hopes to make a case to lawmakers about investing more in Baltimore's roads and bridges.

"There are so many other infrastructure needs that we have, we can't continue to take the hit on highway user revenue," she said. "Maintaining every lane mile, plowing every inch of snow, that's our responsibility."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.



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