GBC’s Fry: Gas prices turn commuter attention to transit options and funding issues

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Don Fry Commentary on WYPR

During any given weekday morning rush hour, 69,000 commuters drive their vehicles into Baltimore City’s central business district.

As gas prices continue to rise, more of these highway commuters are seeking transit alternatives, according to recent news reports. Riders are reportedly flocking to busses as well as light rail, metro and MARC rail commuter systems.

Perhaps climbing gas prices are causing the region’s drivers to more fully grasp what the Greater Baltimore Committee has advocated for years – the need for improved transit options in our region. Gas prices aside, Greater Baltimore is among the nation’s most congested regions. Congestion here wastes an average 32 gallons of gas annually per driver.

The problem is, this increasing user focus on transportation options comes at a time when transportation resources in Maryland – including highways, transit, port and airport facilities – are significantly under-funded. The state currently has a backlog of unfunded transportation construction projects that exceeds $40 billion.

Unfortunately, transportation funding often doesn’t get serious attention from elected leaders until it becomes a crisis. And when it does, transportation infrastructure is not a need that is quickly met. Even a highway interchange takes at least six years to build. A $1-2 billion transit project like the Red Line from Woodlawn to Canton could take a decade to complete from planning through construction.

Despite last year’s revenue increase to the state’s Transportation Fund, and considering the Governor and General Assembly’s raid of $50 million per year to balance the budget, at least $250 million more in annual revenue is needed to even begin to address Maryland’s backlog of projects. The Greater Baltimore Committee will soon convene a high-level private-sector workgroup to examine other ways to increase transportation funding, since the per-gallon gas tax – traditionally the top funding mechanism – has fallen out of favor.

The GBC is also hosting a Transportation Summit on June 16 to review the outlook for improving federal transportation funding, which is also depleted.

Along with these problem-solving efforts, strong public support is urgently needed to get priority transportation projects started. Busy state and federal lawmakers need constant reminding from constituents that our mobility is central to our economy and quality of life.

For the Regional Business Report, this is Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, for 88.1 WYPR, your NPR news station.

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