Transportation summit pushes for new revenue

Business leaders, elected officials and transportation advocates gathered in Annapolis Wednesday to push Gov. Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly to take action next year to raise vital revenue for the state’s roads, bridges and transit systems – even in the face of public opposition.
Participants in the Transportation Funding Summit packed a hearing room near the State House to brainstorm over strategies to persuade legislators to do what they refused to do earlier this year – increase taxes on gasoline to provide the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to sustain a transportation program that does more than just maintain what it already has.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said the General Assembly needs to act in 2013 rather than “kick the can down the road.”
"Those of us at the local level, we can’t kick it nowhere,” he said, noting that 2014 is an election  year, when lawmakers are reluctant to vote for new taxes.
Some summit participants believe the what the governor needs to do is make a more sustained, consistently hands-on push for a tax on gasoline than he did last year. Others think he needs to come up with an alternate approach.
So far, the O’Malley administration has been mum on its plans. Spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor’s staff is still formulating his legislative program.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he’s willing to make a new push for revenue but said it would require the governor’s direct involvement in rounding up votes. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, meanwhile, said officials need to see what happens in the federal negotiation over the so-called “fiscal cliff” before making a decision on what can be done.
According to the state Department of Legislative Services, the state’s traditional revenue sources for transportation –among them the 23.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax, titling taxes and registration fees – are no longer producing enough money to meet the need to build significant new road or transit capacity to relieve congestion. By 2018, analysts project,  the entire Department of Transportation capital spending program for highways will go to “system preservation” – with nothing left over for design and construction of new projects.
That is the state of the system even without taking into account the projected costs of building three major transit systems the state now has in its plans – Baltimore’s Red Line, the Washington suburbs’ Purple Line and Montgomery County’s Corridor City Transitway. With application deadlines for federal funds for the Red and Purple lines as close as next year, Maryland has yet to identify a source of funds for the state’s share -- more than $1 billion for each project.
Meanwhile, road projects all over the state are taking a hit as the costs of transit systems chew up more slices of the transportation pie. During the last budget year transit spending – mostly on operations – took up 48 percent of the budget compared with 23 percent for roads. Just five years before, spending on was roughly even.
The sad state of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is old news in Annapolis. Before the 2011 session, a blue-ribbon commission advised the General Assembly the state needed about $850 million a year in additional revenue to meet its needs and recommended a series of revenue-raisers including a 15-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax. Lawmakers said no that year.
Early this year, O’Malley proposed a 6 sales tax on gasoline that would have raised about $613 million a year and have added 18 cents to the price of a gallon of gas. The measure didn’t even get a committee vote as legislators wrangled with several higher-profile issues – same-sex marriage, casino gambling and an income tax increase.
Many lawmakers say there is little chance the result would be different if  the governor were to return with a variation of either of the gas tax proposals. The resistance from their constituents is just too strong, they say.
The dilemma of Del. James Malone, who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, shows how heavy a lift any transportation revenue package would be. He’s a Democrat, vice chairman of the subcommittee that oversees transportation policy and a self-described “big transit guy,” but he took a constituent survey last year and found his voters were “adamantly opposed to the gas tax.” He said his “gut feeling” is that their minds haven’t changed and that the votes won’t be there.