Donald Fry — Transportation funding: will it be a genuine priority in Annapolis this year?

By Donald C. Fry

Opening Day of the 2013 Maryland General Assembly session generated a lot of talk among leading lawmakers in the State House and significant media coverage about the issue of funding the state’s transportation infrastructure.

But it remains to be seen whether addressing the growing crisis in funding our state’s roads, transit and other transportation resources will be a genuine priority in Annapolis this year.

In opening-day interviews for WEAA’s Marc Steiner Show, the legislature’s two top leaders – Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch – both agreed that the transportation funding crisis is real.

But they also expressed reservations about getting the votes to strengthen annual transportation funding by the $700 million to $800 million it will take to begin addressing the state’s more than $40 billion in unfunded priority projects.

“I know how to solve the problem,” said Miller. “But I can’t get the votes to solve the problem.”

To have any chance of passage, transportation funding legislation would have to include a provision for a “lock box” to prevent future raiding of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, Miller said. “It’s part of the ultimate solution,” he said. “ It’s not good government, but we’re going to have to do that.”

House Speaker Busch says he recognizes the gravity of the transportation funding crisis that has resulted from more than a decade of stagnant revenues to the transportation fund, largely due to the fact the state’s flat per-gallon gas tax has not been increased since 1992. The funding situation has become so dire that the General Assembly’s own fiscal experts project that the state will have no funds available for any new transportation projects beyond system maintenance as early as 2018.

Nevertheless, gaining the 71 votes in the House to pass a transportation funding bill, much less gaining the 85 votes needed to pass a lock box constitutional amendment, “would be a hard mountain to climb,” said Busch.

“But we’re going to try to find a way to come up with some transportation revenue this year. We’ll look outside the box,” Busch told members of the Maryland Economic Development Association during at panel discussion yesterday.

Governor Martin O’Malley acknowledged that the transportation funding crisis results from long-term “insufficient” revenue to the transportation fund. In addition to increasing the gas tax, options to resolve the crisis could include indexing the gas tax to inflation, or “to move away from the gas tax” and consider other revenue sources.

O’Malley suggested that increasing the state sales tax by 1 cent and dedicating that portion to transportation would raise the required $700 million to $800 million per year. But the governor stopped short of pledging to include such a proposal in his legislative agenda until he has had further discussions with legislative leaders.

“There is no way to do it without additional revenue,” O’Malley said. He noted that Maryland drivers currently waste billions of dollars idling in congestion. “I’d rather see us avoid that expense by doing something that makes more sense now and which in the long term would be cheaper for all of us and better for our economy.”

Many in Annapolis remember that legislative leaders said the same kind of things about transportation funding at the beginning of last year’s session. Transportation advocates remain to be convinced that increasing funding for transportation infrastructure is a serious priority for Maryland’s legislative leaders this time around.

Maybe the proposal by Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to increase that state’s transportation funding by $3.1 billion will serve to prod Maryland lawmakers into action to address our own transportation funding crisis.

In any case, several things have to happen if a transportation funding bill is to be successful. There must be strong leadership not just from the Governor and General Assembly leaders, but from the state’s county executives as well.

Also, business leaders and local economic developers must also personally communicate to their state lawmakers what they all know to be true — that superior transportation infrastructure is a basic core pillar of a competitive environment. It leads to the end result that virtually all of our state’s lawmakers profess allegiance to: jobs.

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:

As deficit pressure eases, what will state lawmakers focus on?

Competitiveness should be at the top of lawmakers’ priority lists

Community spirit: it’s alive and well in Baltimore’s business sector

Two agencies offer roadmap to competitiveness

State funding for new roads approaching zero

A significant step forward looms for Red Line

Minority and women business achievers show entrepreneurial spirit

Sailabration showcased Baltimore’s ‘fun’ potential

Are Maryland’s regulatory rankings about substance or process?

Transportation budget process: a tale of backlog and irony

CSX intermodal facility: Mayor, Governor to the rescue