Donald Fry: Maryland’s transportation funding crisis is real, not contrived

By Donald C. Fry

On Route 404, a major route for tens of thousands of Marylanders traveling to and from Eastern Shore beach resorts, the macadam is new and the ride is smooth … in Delaware, that is.

Once drivers cross the Maryland line into Caroline County, the smooth macadam disappears. Maryland 404 is visibly less well-maintained. The ride is less smooth. The road is cracked in many places, patched in others. It’s not horrible, mind you, but the roadway is noticeably in need of attention.

For Marylanders, this kind of driving experience has traditionally been the other way around. We’ve boasted for decades that the roads always get worse once you cross the line from Maryland into a neighboring state. Not in this case, however.

The good news is that this particular Maryland stretch of Route 404 east of Denton is slated for maintenance, specifically repaving by the State Highway Administration this year, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s capital budget.

The bad news, however, is that the more comprehensive plan for MD 404 to provide Marylanders with a four-lane divided highway most of the way from U.S. 50 to the Delaware line has been a regional transportation priority on the shore for more than 10 years, but not a dollar is yet budgeted for construction.

In the Baltimore region, a project to widen MD 32 – where its two lanes between Liberty Road and MD 108 are choked daily with commuters driving to and from jobs in the Baltimore and DC areas – is a perennial top priority for both Carroll and Howard counties. But that project has also remained dormant for years, with no construction budgeted because of diminishing state funding for new transportation projects – funding that fiscal experts say will dry up completely in 2017 without decisive action from state lawmakers.

These are just two anecdotal examples of why normally tax-averse business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee, as well as other transportation advocates, labor leaders and elected officials in central Maryland counties are urging lawmakers to pass legislation now before them to significantly replenish the state’s transportation fund.

Maryland’s transportation infrastructure funding crisis is real. It is not contrived. It is largely the result of two decades of legislative inattention to bolstering major transportation revenue sources that are stagnant and not tied to inflation.

As I reported last week, construction spending on virtually every new priority highway, bridge and transit project in the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City has been put on hold by Maryland’s transportation funding crisis.

The focus of transportation budget management is now mostly on maintenance, not vital new projects. Three years from now, maintenance will be the only thing the state can afford without legislative action to increase revenue to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, according to the Maryland General Assembly’s fiscal analysts.

The effect of this now-chronic crisis goes beyond just the driving and travelling experience. Employment in the state’s highway construction industry has been severely impacted because work on road projects, new or otherwise, has slowed to a trickle, industry and labor leaders told us last week.

“There’s nothing in the pipeline now in Maryland,” James Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, told reporters during a March 15 news conference in Annapolis hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee.

“There’s nothing going on except a bridge rebuilt here and an intersection there. It’s patchwork,” Russ said.

Highway construction activity in the state is occurring “at a much slower pace,” said Jermaine Jones, a representative of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA). “It’s important that we do something to put these men and women back to work.”

“Maryland’s infrastructure is in great need of repair,” said Mark Coles, business and legislative representative for the Washington D.C. Building and Construction Trades Council.

Employers are affected as well, said Beverly Pannee, vice president of RJM Engineering, whose Maryland office is located in Ellicott City. Commute time was the most important factor in her company’s office-location decision, she said.

“As our area’s roadways become more congested, I am concerned that mobility will be a critical factor in our ability to attract and keep the best talent, as well as our ability to expand our business in the future,” Pannee said.

Maryland’s transportation funding crisis is well beyond the stage where it can be addressed by a quick fix. It cannot be resolved by “magic bullet” solutions such as shifting transit funding to highway projects, or by a one-time repayment to local jurisdictions of diverted money that was never a part of the pool that funds state-maintained transportation projects in the first place.

This year, Governor Martin O’Malley and leaders of the Maryland General Assembly have fully grasped this reality. They have crafted consensus legislation that is the first proposal in decades that would generate the magnitude of increased revenue needed to resolve the crisis in funding transportation infrastructure.

The legislation before lawmakers now would allow the state to begin addressing the massive backlog of projects that are planned but not funded for construction. Its provisions would also make the transportation fund more sustainable over the long term and less subject to the revenue stagnation that, for two decades, has hampered the Maryland Department of Transportation’s ability to keep up with rising construction costs.

This is an opportunity that our lawmakers must seize. This is the time to vote “yes” for Maryland’s future mobility – a vital prerequisite for job creation, economic growth and high quality of life.

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:

Unmet county priority lists frame the need for transportation funding bill

CEOs are talking about Maryland’s competitiveness

Lessons from the port’s record year

Latest business climate rankings for Maryland range from 5th to 41st

Workforce wellness survey: high enthusiasm, spotty evaluation

Brainstorming in search of transportation funding consensus