Gov. Larry Hogan, left, and Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn at a State Highway Administration yard in Annapolis. The ramifications of the administration's failure to raise transportation revenue as their predecessors have are becoming increasingly apparent.
Gov. Larry Hogan, left, and Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn at a State Highway Administration yard in Annapolis. The ramifications of the administration's failure to raise transportation revenue as their predecessors have are becoming increasingly apparent. (By Paul W. Gillespie / Staff)

Last week, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn had the unenviable task of explaining how his agency’s reduced support for Baltimore transit isn’t really reduced support for Baltimore transit at all. Sure, he told lawmakers during the latest of his periodic “road show” visits to City Hall, the Maryland Transit Administration will receive less funding, but that’s because MTA capital projects are being completed. And there’s even something to that — if lawmakers ignore how the state has cut or postponed needed transit projects from Baltimore’s to-do list with some frequency from the Red Line to the Bayview MARC station. If you choose not to invest in the city, it’s remarkable how your long-term costs go down.

But Maryland’s neglect of transit is really much worse than that. As the MTA’s own planners have pointed out, the state isn’t spending enough on upkeep of its aging infrastructure. There’s a $2 billion shortfall over the next decade. Every mode is affected including the Metro subway system ($1.2 billion) to MARC ($1.1 billion) and bus service ($908 million). As much as Baltimore needs more transit options, it really, really needs to keep the ones it has. And wait, it’s worse yet. The D.C. suburbs are getting hit, too. The state has similarly cut funds for Montgomery County’s long-planned Corridor Cities Transitway, the 15-mile bus rapid transit system that’s been on the books for a decade.

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A train bound for Johns Hopkins pulls into the Mondawmin Metro Subway Station last year. The system needs more than $1 billion in maintenance investment over the next ten years, according to the Maryland Transit Administration.
A train bound for Johns Hopkins pulls into the Mondawmin Metro Subway Station last year. The system needs more than $1 billion in maintenance investment over the next ten years, according to the Maryland Transit Administration. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Some of this can be explained by Gov. Larry Hogan’s expressed preference for highway investment but not all. Maryland’s running a bit short on highway funds, too. Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund has essentially borrowed as much as it is legally allowed. Meanwhile, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation a “D+” grade for its infrastructure. In Maryland, that includes roads judged to be in such disrepair (8.2% in poor condition) that driving on them costs motorists an additional $550 each year in vehicle maintenance (think of all the flat tires or alignment woes from pot holes alone). Reduced spending on Baltimore transit isn’t just about having the wrong priorities, it’s a matter of not having the revenue to meet the state’s transportation needs in the first place.

This should not be any surprise to either Secretary Rahn or to Governor Hogan. Every Maryland governor has had to do something to boost transportation revenues that simply don’t grow as fast as the state’s needs. It just comes with the job. Even Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the one-term Republican for whom Mr. Hogan served as appointments chief, boosted transportation revenue through fee increases. Governors Martin O’Malley and William Donald Schaefer raised the state gas tax as did Gov. Harry Hughes. And while it’s all very well to talk about alternatives like public-private partnerships or trimming waste, it’s difficult to avoid this fundamental problem of needing to invest more in transportation to grow the state’s economy. The gas tax, in particular, has proved insufficient as more fuel efficient vehicles hit the road dampening revenue at the gas pump.

We are open to solutions of any kind but first, the folks in the State House have to acknowledge the depth of the problem. As we’ve noted before, the Hogan administration’s approach to transportation is sometimes difficult to fathom. One day, the governor is bragging about cutting tolls by 60 cents, the next he’s advocating $20 tolls for privately-managed “Lexus Lanes” on Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway or talking about building a multi-billion-dollar Chesapeake Bay bridge. There are any number of potential remedies to raise transportation revenue in broader, less punitive ways. Maryland’s transit systems might be spun off with dedicated sources of revenue culled from the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund or other sources, for example, and/or the governor might actually propose a revenue package, as his predecessors have done.

For the record, Maryland’s current 26.2 cents per gallon gas tax is slightly above the national average of 24.85 cents, according to the American Petroleum Institute, but both are arguably too low anyway. It’s believed higher fuel costs would translate into the purchase of more fuel efficient cars and fewer vehicle miles traveled by consumers. Both outcomes would help the state meet air pollution and climate change goals thanks to reduced tailpipe emissions. A carbon tax makes a lot of sense — unless your major concern isn’t the welfare of the state but the desire to claim you and your fellow Republicans oppose tax increases (even when they make so much sense). Baltimore’s transit deficit is a problem in itself but also part of a broader pattern of neglect.

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