Donald Fry: Transportation funding bills get attention in Annapolis, but face major hurdles

By Donald C. Fry

Two key transportation funding bills will surface in Annapolis during the next two weeks, but they must overcome significant hurdles to gain passage.

Both the Maryland House of Delegates and the Senate of Maryland have scheduled hearings on legislation that would create a “firewall” to protect the state’s Transportation Trust Fund from being raided by lawmakers seeking to plug budget holes or for other non-transportation purposes. The legislation would also increase the gasoline tax rate and other fees that go into the transportation fund.

If enacted, the measures would put an end to 27 years of raids during which state lawmakers have transferred more than $1.5 billion from the state’s transportation fund to the general fund for non-transportation uses – mostly to balance the state’s budget.

On March 1, the House Ways and Means Committee will hear HB1001, sponsored by Montgomery County Democrat C. William Frick and 36 co-sponsors, which would make the “firewall” a constitutional amendment. It would also raise the gas tax rate by 10 cents, index the gas tax for inflation, and raise the state’s vehicle registration fees.

The bill’s companion legislation in the Senate, SB714, sponsored by Montgomery County Senator Robert J. Garagiola and 13 co-sponsors, will be heard by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on March 9.

The hearings will be held two weeks after Maryland’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding issued a report calling unequivocally for legislative action to protect the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. The commission, on which I serve, also recommended that lawmakers raise $800 million in net new annual funding for transportation through a combination of $600 million in new revenue initiatives that can be leveraged to provide $200 million in new bond sales. It further recommended that the state restore local government transportation funding that the state has begun diverting to its general fund.

Lawmakers’ habitual raiding of the stagnant Transportation Trust Fund and the more than $40 billion backlog of state transportation projects that are planned but not funded for construction prompted the recent formation of a statewide coalition of transportation advocates – the State Transportation Alliance to Restore the Trust (START) – to campaign for enacting a firewall, raising new transportation revenue, and returning highway user funding to local governments.

START now has 52 participating organizations and businesses from across Maryland. Participating organizations include the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, AAA Maryland, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, and the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance. The coalition also includes companies such as CSX, EBA Engineering, RK&K, STV Incorporated, and the Terminal Corporation. This underscores the breadth and depth of concern in our state over the lack of urgency that has existed in Annapolis regarding transportation funding.

Governor Martin O’Malley was quoted in news reports last week as saying that he “could” support new revenues if proposed by lawmakers and hinting that he might even consider supporting a transportation funding firewall. He noted, however, that a firewall alone would not generate more transportation revenue.

Governor O’Malley is right about that. But transportation advocates, including members of the START coalition, firmly believe that a lockbox must be given serious consideration if legislation increasing transportation revenue is to have any credibility with voters. Without some sort of spending restrictions – either a constitutional amendment or equivalent legislation placing significant restraints on use of transportation funds – how will voters be able to trust any action by lawmakers to increase transportation funding, given the 25-year history of borrowing from it for non-transportation purposes.

In today’s atmosphere of post-traumatic recession shock that prevails in Annapolis, advocates for these transportation bills face several major impediments. First, lawmakers are being asked to pass lockbox legislation that would restrict the use of one of their favorite “back pocket” sources of budget-balancing funding.

Even more of a challenge may be the fact that there are only a handful of lawmakers left under the State House dome who were there in the days when passing a gas tax rate increase to keep up with inflation was a routine legislative act. Of 188 lawmakers, only 25 – a mere 13 percent –were in the General Assembly in 1992, which was the last year that the gas tax rate was increased.

The rest have never faced a vote for a gas tax that has been the staple of Maryland’s – and the country’s – transportation funding formula for decades.

This raises a key question for today’s lawmakers, most of whom acknowledge the dire straits in which our transportation fund finds itself.

“If not the gas tax, then what?”

For the sake of our state’s post-recession infrastructure and economy, we all need to agree soon on the answer.

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