Donald Fry: Unmet county priority lists frame the need for transportation funding bill

By Donald C. Fry

Lawmakers today will begin to consider the transportation funding package proposed jointly by Governor O’Malley, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller as the House Ways and Means Committee holds the first hearing on the proposal.

Transportation advocates, myself included, who are voicing strong support for this consensus proposal can expect to address one simple question: why does the state have to raise $800 million a year in additional revenue for transportation?

It’s a fair question. And, aside from discussing the minutia related to the legislation’s mechanisms for attaining this magnitude of revenue increase, the answer to the question is as basic as it gets.

It boils down to two words: “The lists.”

What lists? The lists that Baltimore City and the state’s 23 counties submit to the Maryland Department of Transportation every year detailing their top transportation priorities.

The lists haven’t changed much during the last five years. That’s because the state is essentially out of money to fund new highway and transit projects. No new projects have been funded for construction in several years.

During the next four years, the situation will get worse, according to the legislature’s own fiscal analysts. Not only will there be no funding for new project construction, there will be no state funding available for anything relating to new projects – not planning, not right-of-way acquisition and not engineering. Funding for new projects will be a single digit – zero.

That’s the ultimate cost we have sustained for failing to act over the last two decades to adequately provide revenue for transportation. Or, as Governor Martin O’Malley has said, Maryland’s transportation funding has essentially been capped. The result is a backlog of more than $50 billion in planned highway and transit infrastructure projects that remain stalled due to lack of funding.

After fiscal 2017, the state will have only enough money in its Transportation Trust Fund to pay for maintenance of existing infrastructure, forecasts the General Assembly’s Office of Policy Analysis.

This stark reality brings us back to the lists.

Top-priority unfunded transportation projects in Baltimore-region jurisdictions range from construction of the light rail Red Line in Baltimore City to widening MD 32 from two lanes to four between MD 26 in Carroll County to MD 108 in Howard County, which is listed as top priorities in both counties.

Other top priorities in the Baltimore region are: major interchange construction on MD 175 in Anne Arundel County, MARC transit-oriented development around the Martin Airport site in Baltimore County, and BRAC-related road safety and capacity improvements, including no less than eight intersections serving the burgeoning Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

For jurisdictions outside the Baltimore region, top-priority transportation projects include construction of the Purple Line between New Carrollton and Bethesda, widening and safety improvements along MD 404 in Caroline County – a major route to the shore – building new bridges in Calvert, Kent and Talbot counties, and a major upgrade and relocation of US 220 between I-68 and the West Virginia line in Allegany County.

These are just half of the top-priority projects for all of Maryland’s jurisdictions which, by the way, total $12 billion in projected costs. And the top-priority projects are just the tip of much larger lists of tens of billions more in projects that are languishing as the state’s transportation infrastructure funding crisis continues to build.

The effect of the crisis has been to make the annual compilation of local priority project lists to submit to a tapped out-MDOT an exercise in extreme frustration. In recent years, these lists from the state’s jurisdictions have, in effect, evolved from priority lists, to wish lists, to prayer lists.

None of these projects stand to receive state funding until lawmakers in Annapolis take decisive action to strengthen revenue to the state’s stagnant transportation fund.

The administration proposal that is now before lawmakers is just such an action worthy of passage. It’s the first proposal in decades that would raise the level of new revenue needed to begin to address the state’s multi-billion shortfall in funding for roads, bridges and transit.

Some might argue that the bill is not perfect. Maybe not, but remember that “perfection” is the enemy of “good,” especially in legislative bodies. Perfect or not, this bill represents a workable, constructive consensus among our state’s legislative leaders. Its revenue provisions are balanced and reasonably well-structured.

The legislation addresses the major issues that have been raised in the years-long transportation funding debate. To name just a few issues, they include a lockbox provision to ensure that revenue is dedicated to transportation. They provide for reasonably increasing riders’ share of bearing the costs of transit. They include indexing revenue sources to inflation.

Given the severity of our state’s transportation funding crisis – and considering that Maryland’s immediate neighbor and competitor for business growth, Virginia, this year crafted a comprehensive solution to its own transportation funding crisis – the O’Malley administration’s transportation legislative package is a reasonable approach at the right time.

It will begin to restore superior mobility to our state – an essential prerequisite for economic competitiveness.

It will create thousands of jobs.

It will ease congestion.

Most importantly it will enhance our quality of life.

This consensus proposal before lawmakers would positively change the state policy that got us into the transportation funding crisis. It’s an opportunity worth embracing and one that can’t be wasted.

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

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