Don't look now, but the highwaymen -- and women -- are gaining on you.

Of course, they're all ladies and gentlemen. And they're out to provide what they think is a needed service, not commit highway robbery.

But the state's road contractors, consulting engineers, construction unions, state transportation officials and all the other people who build interstates, runways, bridges and tunnels are still after a piece of your wallet.

And they're likely to get it.

The General Assembly rejected new transportation taxes and fees during its regular session. But at a special budget session this week legislators are expected to shift into reverse and pass a law to permit the Motor Vehicle Administration to raise $42 million annually through higher fees.

That would sharply increase the price of drivers' licenses (but not the annual auto registration fees), vehicle titles and scores of other little pieces of paper law-abiding citizens must obtain from the MVA.

The switch came after the Schaefer administration, faced with falling transportation revenue, froze most new DOT construction projects Dec. 10. This spring, the DOT warned that the state could lose $312 million worth of federal interstate highway and other transportation aid by October because it did not have the ** money to match federal grants.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, who used his power to block the fee increases during the regular session, remains skeptical that the aid was ever in jeopardy. But he finally relented and supported the fees earlier this month, saying he didn't want to take any chances.

The switch also came after the politically influential highway industry, through a new coalition called Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways (MESH), lobbied hard to lift the construction freeze.

(Between 1986 and 1990, Maryland Common Cause reports, the Consulting Engineer's Council of Maryland PAC gave $24,803 to legislative and statewide races; Genstar PAC gave $7,114; the Heavy Highway PAC gave $13,990; the Transportation Political Education League gave $1,270; and the Public Works Contractor's Association gave $14,340.)

A few weeks ago, at a roadside press conference, MESH members complained to gathered reporters that the freeze had brought their industry to the brink of collapse. They delivered the same message in a series of private meetings with legislators.

Within days, opposition to the higher fees folded.

Last week, the DOT said the higher fees would unfreeze $450 million worth of road, bridge, rail and other construction projects.

But even the higher fees will not be enough, DOT officials warned, to pay for another $850 million worth of projects previously sought by the legislature and slated to begin in fiscal 1992, which begins July 1.

So the sometimes acrimonious, see-saw battle over transportation revenue is not over yet. It is just entering a new phase.

The Schaefer administration and legislators are now talking about scrapping the current five-year blueprint for highway and transportation spending, called the Consolidated Transportation Program, and starting from scratch.

Legislators and DOT officials say they expect to draft a new plan that reflects the state's changed financial and political climate over the next several months.

This might calm things somewhat in the State House. But it could still cost taxpayers money.

Most legislators and DOT officials expect that even a revised plan will require more revenue. And Speaker Mitchell said he expects the DOT to ask the General Assembly, when it convenes in January, to consider an increase of between a nickel and a dime in the state's 18.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax.

But is the money really needed? How many and what kind of new roads, bridges and light rail systems does the state need, anyway? And how did the state get to the point where transportation projects were frozen, federal funds in jeopardy, highway contractors agitated and taxes on the rise?

How much of the state needs to be paved, tracked, bridged or tunneled is, of course, a subjective determination. It depends on the amount of time people are willing to spend in traffic tie-ups, how far they want to travel, where they want to go, what vehicle they want to get there in and what kind of development -- urban versus suburban or rural, high-density versus low -- that they want.

Current tastes are shifting, legislators and transportation officials claim. Over the past several years, they say, Marylanders have become more concerned about environmental issues, more interested in alternatives to driving and sick of the record level of highway construction that -- in the short run -- has seemed to cause as many tie-ups as it has cured.

The new mood has caught everyone by surprise. One state transportation official pointed out that, when the legislature last raised the gas tax by a nickel in 1987, it required that 70 percent of the new money go to highways. "That's in the friggin' law," the official said. "Now people point to us and say, 'You bastards, you're paving the state.' "

Highway industry officials don't see any shift in the public mood. On June 13, several hundred construction executives showed up at the ballroom of a Baltimore-Washington International airport hotel for a MESH meeting that turned into a relieved celebration of the tentative agreement on higher MVA fees.

Americans are as devoted to their cars as to their wives and husbands, declared one Genstar Stone Products Co. executive, and "the last thing they're going to part with is their auto. It's here. We're going to keep it." The applause was loud and long.

How far the state will go in shifting away from highways depends on to what extent, if any, people's passion for their autos has cooled.

LTC The answer to the question about how the state got into this mess is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is: It ran out of transportation money. The complicated answer goes this way:

State transportation spending escalated sharply beginning in the early 1980s, when politicians decided roads and bridges were in bad shape and that traffic tie-ups had grown intolerable. So they raised the gas tax a couple of times and aggressively pursued federal aid.

The result was that transportation construction spending rose from about $370 million in 1982 to more than $1 billion in fiscal 1990 -- and most of that increase was due to accelerated highway construction.

According to a recent report by The Road Information Project, a national group that represents highway builders and energy companies, Maryland ranks 41st among the 50 states in miles of state highways. (It ranks 42nd in land area.) But in fiscal 1990 it ranked 11th in spending on the construction of new highways.

A commission chaired by former state Secretary of Transportation William K. Hellmann concluded in January that Maryland should raise about $1.5 billion over the next five years with an increase in the gas tax.

That tax increase would have maintained transportation construction spending near the historically high $1 billion-a-year level for a year or two, with a gradual falloff after that.

Without any increase, the money available for new construction will drop fairly sharply to pre-1985 levels as operating costs for the airport, port and transit systems increase.

State Secretary of Transportation O. James Lighthizer said while the state should continue to spend about $1 billion on construction, that money should shifted away from highway building to transit, road resurfacing and bridge rehabilitation projects.

But the entire package, it turned out, was already politically obsolete.

Before last year's elections, the DOT met with legislators and local officials to draft a new five-year Consolidated Transportation Program, DOT officials said. That program, they said, included $500 million worth of projects that the state was not ready to pay for with current revenues.

Instead, legislators and local officials were told that if they wanted the projects they would have to support an increase in the gas tax of between a nickel and a dime. Most legislators, DOT officials said, wanted those projects.

The fall elections shattered that agreement. The Republicans, and their anti-tax message, gained ground in the General Assembly. A few Democratic incumbents were toppled. The surviving Democratic majority heard constituents complain loudly about government spending.

Meanwhile, the recession crept along. New car sales slumped and revenue from the 5 percent motor vehicle excise tax began to drop. Corporate income tax payments, part of which go for transportation, also fell. Gas sales -- and revenue from the gas tax -- held up until December, when they began to drop as well.

When the legislature rejected proposed increases in the gas tax and MVA fees earlier this year, that stranded the $500 million worth of projects promised during the previous year. The falloff in transportation taxes halted hundreds of millions more in additional projects.

Some legislators also claim that the escalating cost of the $446 million Baltimore-area light rail project eroded the DOT's budget, though DOT officials deny it.

For now, the debate has subsided. Higher MVA fees would rescue $450 million worth of the previously proposed projects and provide matching money for the $312 million in federal aid. Many of the $850 million in frozen projects in the current Consolidated Transportation Project may be junked or altered when the program is reviewed.

But bigger decisions still loom. Will Maryland expand transportation spending and raise taxes or cut back construction in the weakened economy? Will state leaders back up their rhetoric and shift money from highway-building to mass transit? The answers may be found further down the road.

Doug Birch covers transportation for The Sun.

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