Donald Fry: Quake serves as reminder about transportation

By Donald C. Fry

At 1:51 p.m. last Tuesday, buildings and office towers in downtown Baltimore began shaking and swaying from a rare east coast earthquake.

Tens of thousands of workers in those buildings scurried down stairs and spilled onto sidewalks. By 3 p.m., many got into theirs cars and headed out of the city. The result was predictable – massive congestion, especially on the Baltimore Beltway. The same phenomenon occurred around DC, according to reports.

Admittedly, the aftermath of an earthquake is a special circumstance. But it should serve to remind all of us of the critical importance of transportation resources to our region and state.

It should energize all of us to redouble our efforts to address Maryland’s continuing crisis in funding transportation infrastructure.

I am convinced that the long-standing inability of Maryland’s lawmakers to find a way to strengthen transportation funding remains one of biggest threats to building a highly competitive post-recession economy and to maintaining and strengthening our future quality of life.

There is a plethora of revenue and policy issues related to our state’s escalating transportation funding crisis, ranging from a state gas tax that has not been raised in two decades to the inclination of lawmakers to borrow from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund when faced with other fiscal challenges.

The fundamental nature of our transportation funding crisis can be summed up with a few simple facts:

• During the last decade, state funding and spending for transportation increased at less than half the rate of state revenue and spending for other purposes.
• Maryland’s transportation funding policies over the last decade have resulted in a backlog of highway, transit, port, and airport projects that have been planned, but that do not yet have one dollar of construction funding budgeted for them to a magnitude in excess of $40 billion.
• As our state continues to grow and attract new jobs related to Base Realignment & Cloture (BRAC) activities, last year’s state transportation plan, known as the Consolidated Transportation Plan (CTP), did not have one new project approved for funding in the entire state. This year’s plan will be similarly limited.
• Congestion continues to increase each year resulting in more damaging emissions released into our atmosphere, wasted fuel, and reduced productivity in our career and personal lives.
• A failure to properly maintain our roads results in more costs to the public (i.e. – damage to automobiles) and threatens the safety of the motoring public.
• Failure to make needed repairs and maintenance to our major infrastructure structures only delays the inevitable work that is needed to ensure the safety of these public thoroughfares thus dramatically increasing the ultimate cost of these projects, all to the detriment of the taxpayer.

How does this affect our lives? Highway commuters must endure record levels of congestion on a daily basis. Baltimore area transit riders must work around the fact that our region still does not have a comprehensive, integrated rail transit system. Commuters from outlying suburbs are faced with limited and often time-consuming alternatives to driving to work. Adjustments have to be made in our personal schedules to accommodate the congestion delays caused by lack of investment. All of these come at a cost, some direct and some indirect.

A creative television ad focused on the premise that a delay in making a needed repair for a consumer product served no real benefit to the customer. All the viewer was left with was the unpopular choice of “You can pay me now….or you can pay me later.” Unfortunately, the failure of our elected leaders to address the need to make sustained investments to address our transportation needs has left the Maryland taxpayer with the same choice.

Maryland’s traditionally superior transportation resources are in dire need of attention. There is no question that the need to address this basic government service exists. The only question that remains is whether our lawmakers are up to the task.

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