Donald Fry: In DC and Annapolis, lawmakers still sidestepping transportation funding

By Donald C. Fry

In Washington, D.C., Democrats are blaming Republican politics for the fact that our nation still does not have a federal multi-year funding program for transportation infrastructure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said as much last week when he charged that House Republican leaders in Congress would like to “make the economy worse” rather than pass a transportation funding bill that would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and boost the economy.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md-5th, blasted Republicans for their unwillingness to compromise on a transportation funding bill. “It’s not our way or the highway,” Hoyer reportedly characterized the GOP stance to reporters. “It’s our way or no highway. No jobs, no progress, no consensus, no agreement.”

Maybe Hoyer could express the same “no highway, no jobs, no progress” admonishment to members of the Maryland General Assembly, who also won’t vote to enact a transportation infrastructure funding bill that would create thousands of jobs in the state.

During the last 10 years our state’s lawmakers have been chronically unable or unwilling to address Maryland’s growing crisis in funding transportation infrastructure. The result has been a massive unfunded backlog of priority road, transit, port and airport projects and a virtual halt to any major work on new transportation infrastructure. This is not good for a state where its two major metropolitan regions regularly show up on the nation’s most-congested lists.

In Annapolis, however, Democrats can’t blame Republicans. Democrats control the Maryland General Assembly. So what’s their excuse for not increasing revenue to a state transportation fund that has stagnated largely because its primary funding source – the per-gallon gas tax – has not been increased by lawmakers in 20 years?

“It’s not the right time” is the best rationalization Maryland legislative leaders have been able to muster during the last two sessions as they swatted down gas-tax increase proposals, citing rising gas prices.

Meanwhile, over the last 10 years, lawmakers have found ways to increase state operating revenue at more than twice the rate of revenue growth to the throttled transportation fund. Last month, they held a special session that, in a matter of days, increased income taxes to generate $250 million in new revenue for state operations.

A second special session in July is being considered to pass gaming expansion legislation that is estimated would produce $101 million in new operating revenue to the state.

Gas prices have fallen significantly in recent months – far in excess of any gas tax increase needed to begin addressing the infrastructure crisis. Because it would create thousands of new jobs and economic activity that would produce revenue to the state, a transportation funding bill would be another important revenue measure for the legislature to consider next month, not unlike gaming-expansion legislation.

Whether our state’s lawmakers will concur with such a suggestion remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, for now and for contrasting reasons, the topic of funding transportation infrastructure – a core prerequisite of any good business climate and a major jobs generator – remains the elephant in the room around which lawmakers continue to dance in both D.C. and Annapolis.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Maryland’s occupational licensing milieu worth examining

Are more public-private partnerships in Maryland’s future?

Rankings and taxes raise issue of state’s business climate … again

Tim Geithner adds his voice to calls for post-recession ‘balance’

Special session could produce uneven income tax increases

Port illustrates value of transportation infrastructure

What did state lawmakers achieve before the meltdown?