Donald Fry: We can’t throw transit under the fiscal bus

 

By Donald C. Fry

Opponents of proposals to raise Maryland’s gas tax rate, or find other ways to increase revenue to address our state’s crisis in funding transportation infrastructure, aim particularly vitriolic derision at one element of that infrastructure – transit.

It’s largely the fault of costly transit that our state doesn’t have enough money to fund its highway infrastructure, argue lawmakers and advocates who weigh in against raising revenue to the state’s long-stagnating transportation trust fund.

Even this week during the special session, which did not consider transportation funding issues, transit opponents nevertheless proposed cutting funds already allocated to the Red Line and Purple Line projects as a budget-reduction measure.

Why do transportation funding opponents so eagerly throw transit under the bus?

For one thing, funding for transportation is extremely tight in Maryland these days, largely due to the fact that it’s been 20 years since state lawmakers raised the per-gallon gas tax, a non-inflation sensitive levy that is the single largest revenue source for the state’s transportation fund. Transit is costly, making it an easy target for anyone looking to rationalize opposition to increasing transportation revenue.

Current detractors say transit is worthless to automobile drivers. It serves 5 percent of Marylanders and provides no real relief for congestion, they argue.

Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? But this is not transit’s first time at the whipping post in Annapolis. There’s history here.

Few topics have consistently divided Maryland’s rural lawmakers from urban lawmakers than the issue of who should pay for mass transit. These divisions have bubbled to the surface with regularity in the Maryland General Assembly for four decades.

In 1971, Maryland lawmakers created the Transportation Trust Fund to support the state’s new Department of Transportation by establishing a substantial and flexible fiscal resource dedicated to funding the state’s breadth of highways, transit, port and airport facilities.

In the 1970s, if you wanted to rile up a lawmaker from Western Maryland, Eastern Shore or almost any non-metropolitan county, you needed only to mention Maryland’s funding share of the then-new Washington, D.C. metro rapid transit system.

From the beginning, rural lawmakers have been concerned that operational and capital funding for transit had the potential to swallow up billions in funds that could otherwise be spent on highways and bridges. That concern is what drove lawmakers to pass “fare box recovery” legislation requiring a percentage of transit operating costs be recovered through fares.

Passionate anti-transit rural lawmakers could be counted on to raise the question: “Why should our constituents pay for an expensive mass transit system that we will never use?” Similar arguments were advanced in opposition to funding rail transit in the Baltimore region.

Things haven’t changed much, judging from the rhetoric among today’s transit detractors.

“Transit is not a viable option for the overwhelming majority of workers in Maryland, regardless of how much is spent,” complained a report from the Maryland Public Policy Institute, one of transit’s harshest critics.

As a business advocate and member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, I am comfortable defending efforts to improve transit and to strengthen all modes of mobility in Maryland’s two major business and employment centers, on the premise that to do so inherently benefits the business climate in all of our state’s jurisdictions, both urban and rural.

While detractors scoff at the comparative numbers of transit riders versus highway drivers in Maryland, it’s worth noting that the 6.2 percent of workers aged 16 and older in the Baltimore region who use public transit ranks the region 5th among 20 competing regions studied in the 2011 State of the Region Report published by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

In the region ranked first for transit in that report – Washington, D.C. – 14.1 percent use public transit to get to work. I’m pretty sure few would argue the DC Metro system is worthless just because 86 percent of that region’s workers don’t use it.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore region’s fifth-place ranking for transit riders was achieved with a rail commuter system that is not even fully integrated. This suggests there is a potentially significant constituency for a well-integrated system – an outcome the construction of the Red Line would accomplish.

However, given the current depleted state of transportation funding in Maryland and the increased costs of highway and transit projects, we should not be satisfied with continuing to pursue a decades-old debate about the value of funding highways versus transit.

We must work to constructively address the differing perspectives about transit needs, whether they both should be funded by gas taxes and, if not, how to practically and adequately address both legitimate transportation resources.

Resolving this issue would be an important step toward breaking legislative inaction that is exacerbating Maryland’s growing crisis in funding transportation infrastructure and is threatening our state’s economic competitiveness.

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