Donald Fry: Transportation budget process: a tale of backlog and irony

 

By Donald C. Fry

Last month, state transportation officials began their annual series of meetings to explain to elected leaders in Baltimore City and the state’s 23 counties what projects for their jurisdictions are included in the newly-drafted six-year capital budget for transportation.

This is a yearly exercise that must be increasingly frustrating for both Maryland Department of Transportation officials and local leaders. It’s also a process that produces a compelling irony.

Five meetings have been held so far, with three held this week in St. Mary’s, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. In late September, meetings were held with officials in Caroline and Harford counties.

In the Baltimore region, meetings in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are scheduled for October 15 and October 18 respectively. The meeting with leaders of Baltimore City will be November 5 and meetings in Howard and Carroll counties will be November 8 and November 15 respectively.

What messages are state transportation officials delivering to local leaders?

Acting MDOT Secretary Darrell Mobley, who is leading the meetings around the state, is focusing on the transportation funding situation. Both federal and state revenues for transportation remain flat, so system maintenance and preservation is the first priority, he is reporting.

“He does highlight the work that is still going on with the dollars available on both the highway and transit sides, as well as the port and the airport,” Jack Cahalan, director of MDOT’s Office of Public Affairs, said. “The last element he discusses is the need for the local jurisdictions and MDOT to partner in whatever way possible to try to advance needed projects.”

This is essentially the same message that state transportation officials have been delivering to local jurisdictions for years. The translation is that, because of more than a decade of stagnating revenue to Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund, there is now little, if any, state funding available for new projects – particularly road projects.

A big reason for the transportation fund’s stagnation is that Maryland lawmakers haven’t significantly raised transportation funding since 1992.

Last year, MDOT compiled a $12 billion list of the single top priority for each of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City. What do all of the projects on the list have in common? They are mostly unfunded for construction, which will not begin on any of them until more revenue is generated for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

The most recent priority lists submitted by counties in letters to MDOT haven’t changed much.

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

Other top transportation priorities in the Baltimore region are: intersection improvements along MD 175 around the burgeoning Ft. Meade complex in Anne Arundel County, MARC transit-oriented development around the Martin Airport site in Baltimore County, and long-delayed, BRAC-related improvements to eight intersections to accommodate growth of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

For jurisdictions outside the Baltimore region, top-priority projects include construction of the Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, building new bridges in Calvert, Caroline, Kent and Talbot counties, and upgrading and relocating US 220 between I-68 and the West Virginia line in Allegany County.

Again this year, MDOT’s draft six-year capital budget for transportation, which will be submitted to the Maryland General Assembly during its 2013 session, offers a stark contrast between transportation infrastructure needs and available funding.

The top-priority needs: $12 billion. New funding added to the six-year budget: $78 million, all for system preservation.

It’s worth noting that the $12 billion figure is the combined cost of just the single top priority for each of the state’s jurisdictions. It does not include dozens of other priority projects on county lists. The total transportation funding backlog is estimated to far exceed $40 billion.

The major irony of the increasingly frustrating annual transportation budget process is that many of the letters from Maryland jurisdictions to MDOT listing priorities are either signed or supported by the state lawmakers from the jurisdictions. These are the same lawmakers who, in Annapolis, have largely failed to act on funding measures that would give transportation officials a fighting chance to address local priorities.

One has to wonder how lawmakers rationalize their support for a priority list that they know can’t be funded and themselves decline to fund when they are in Annapolis.

For anyone who considers mobility and superior transportation infrastructure to be a core pillar of a competitive environment in Maryland for economic growth and job creation, the metrics are getting ugly.

Combined annual funding allocated for capital transportation projects during the last five years has decreased by slightly more than 2 percent from funding allocated during the preceding five-year period, according to data from the state’s Consolidated Transportation Programs.

The total value of transportation projects finished by MDOT during the past five years decreased by 51 percent from projects finished during the previous five years.

To say that funding for Maryland’s transportation infrastructure is flat is an understatement. The fact is: our state’s transportation funding is in grave crisis, and the crisis is worsening.

Maryland’s state lawmakers have made it clear during past legislative sessions they will not support traditional methods of increasing revenue to the Transportation Trust Fund, such as raising the per-gallon gas tax. Fair enough. But they should not allow themselves to leave it at that. It’s incumbent on them to develop other fiscal solutions to enable our state to begin seriously investing in transportation infrastructure again.

Maryland’s mid-Atlantic location and its transportation resources have long been a core asset and at the foundation of our ability to attract and nurture business growth. In the post-recession economic climate where states, particularly on the east coast are aggressively jockeying for business-development advantage, you can be absolutely sure of one thing: our competitors are watching.

In Maryland, we can’t afford to view investing in transportation infrastructure as simply an option or inconvenience. It’s a necessity.

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