Donald Fry: Facing the tide of opposition to transportation funding
By Donald C. Fry
It would be an understatement to say that those of us who are advocating for increasing revenue to Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund are facing a tide of public opposition.
In supporting the governor's proposal to phase in the state's 6 percent sales tax on the wholesale price of gas over three years or more to address the state's burgeoning crisis in funding transportation infrastructure, business leaders are touching a level of public anger that has many state lawmakers scrambling for cover.
At least one delegation chair from a major subdivision with a top-priority transportation project that is dependent on an increase in transportation funding to move forward is reluctant to allow business advocates to present their case for supporting the governor's proposal.
A prominent lawmaker who last year was a cheerleader for increased transportation funding won't touch the issue this year.
Even Senate president Mike Miller, a long-time proponent of increasing the gas tax to resolve Maryland's chronic depletion of funds for roads and transit, is telling reporters the governor's bill is not likely to survive a "tumultuous" session where legislative leaders are being asked to raise several other taxes, including the income tax, to fund state government operations, and suggests the issue should be delayed to a special session.
Such a gut reaction is understandable. No one likes taxes, but we continue to pursue this initiative in the face of such derision. Here's why.
Despite inferences to the contrary, the reason for this tax proposal is logical. The state's largest source of transportation funding - Maryland's per-gallon gas tax - hasn't been increased in 20 years.
What's the logical and predictable result of failing to increase a revenue source that is not inflation sensitive? We find our state's funding for transportation infrastructure in a crisis because it's impossible to pay for highways and transit projects in 2012 with a 1992 revenue stream.
After 20 years of inattention to the revenue for transportation infrastructure - a critical element and long-term competitive strength of Maryland's business climate - Maryland faces at least a $50 billion backlog of unfunded priority projects.
New transportation infrastructure projects have been on hold for at least two years, and will continue to remain unfunded until state lawmakers enact substantial and new annual revenue to the state's transportation fund. Only maintenance is being funded, and not even all of that, construction industry executives told lawmakers this week.
Specifically, business leaders and transportation advocates are asking for two basic actions: passage of a transportation revenue increase of at least $500 million annually to address state transportation projects and enactment of protections to ensure transportation funding revenue is not spent for purposes other than transportation.
If $500 million sounds like a lot of money, which it is, compare it to the $3 billion per year congestion costs Marylanders in the form of wasted gas, wasted time and lost business, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.
The institute's researchers rank the Washington, D.C. metro area, including its Maryland suburbs, as the nation's most congested region. The Baltimore region ranks 6th worst in the nation for congestion, and is the worst-congested among U.S. regions with populations of three million or less.
Our advocacy is not about politics or some vague public policy nuance. It's about real projects that directly affect our state's economic future and quality of life.
Top-priority unfunded transportation projects in the Baltimore-region 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 a top priority in both counties.
Other top transportation priorities in the Baltimore region are: BRAC-related widening and intersection improvements along MD 175 in Anne Arundel County and multiple intersection improvements, road safety and capacity improvements in Harford County; and MARC transit-oriented development around the Martin Airport site in Baltimore County.
For jurisdictions outside the Baltimore region, top-priority projects include construction of the Purple Line between New Carrolton and Bethesda, widening and safety improvements along MD 404 in Caroline County, 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.
None of these projects is currently funded for construction, nor will construction work begin on any of them until more transportation funding revenue is generated.
These are just half of the $12 billion in projects that Maryland's jurisdictions have identified to the Maryland Department of Transportation as the single top priority of each. There are tens of billions of dollars in additional projects on the list of needs in Baltimore City and the state's counties.
This list is real and tangible. It relates to every jurisdiction in our state. Yet even a list of needs this massive elicits a uniform chorus of responses from lawmakers, who tell us "it's not the right time" for a gas-tax increase.
This raises a compelling question. What, specifically, do our lawmakers collectively consider to be a "right time" for increasing revenue to the state's transportation fund?
There has not been any "right time" for lawmakers in the past 20 years since they increased the gas tax to 23.5 cents per gallon.
Terry F. Neimeyer, chairman and CEO of KCI Technologies, noted in his testimony this week to lawmakers that it wasn't the "right time" for gas tax increases sought in 1994 when gas was $1.20 per gallon, 1996 when gas was $1.35 per gallon, or anytime during the last three administrations when business and transportation advocates, noting the building transportation funding crisis, have gone to Annapolis seeking an increase.
When, after years of neglect and resulting load restrictions, "the fire truck or school bus can't cross the bridge ... you and your districts will feel that need," Neimeyer told lawmakers.
It's frustrating to business leaders that, during the last two decades, funding for transportation projects has stagnated while Maryland's operating budget has increased by more than 200 percent, including the passage of new taxes. Yet during that same time, funding for one of the key ingredients of the economy - the state's mobility infrastructure - doesn't garner the political will to raise the funds needed to address population growth, increased vehicle miles traveled, enhanced environmental compliance legislation or increased costs of transportation projects.
Now, that's something that defies logic.
Business leaders and business organizations are normally highly averse to taxes, but in this instance we applaud the governor's leadership and support his legislation because it is the only comprehensive proposal on the table to adequately address a funding crisis that has been decades in the making.
The key for business leaders isn't the process. It's the outcome, significantly strengthening revenue for transportation and protecting that revenue from being used for other purposes. To his credit, the governor has said he is willing to be flexible about the process of getting to these goals.
To us, funding transportation infrastructure is no small issue. Mobility is one of a handful of core pillars for economic growth and job creation. It's extremely important lawmakers move to reverse 20 years of funding stagnation that now costs Maryland residents $3 billion a year, hours of wasted time sitting in traffic, and threatens the economic growth and prosperity of our state.
It will cost us even more dearly in the future if we fail to act in some constructive manner to break the habit of putting such a critical asset relating to mobility in our state on the back burner.