Transit comes under attack again

 

By Donald C. Fry

While virtually everyone under the State House dome acknowledges quality transportation infrastructure is critical to Maryland’s business climate, lawmakers have been consistently challenged to achieve a consensus on how to increase revenues to the state’s stagnant Transportation Trust Fund.

The major impediment has been a years-long reluctance to pass a gas tax increase. That reluctance is driven by two key issues that have framed the debate over transportation funding: the issue of raiding the transportation fund for non-transportation purposes and a lingering “transit versus roads” divide among state lawmakers.

As for raiding, two of the top three lawmakers in Annapolis have this year supported enacting a “firewall” to protect the transportation fund. Gov. Martin O’Malley has likewise indicated he will do what it takes, including such a firewall, to get a transportation bill passed this session. This month, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. filed legislation calling for a constitutional amendment securing Transportation Trust Fund proceeds be used for transportation purposes only.

House Speaker Michael Busch has not proposed a transportation funding measure, but has repeatedly expressed a willingness to engage in discussions toward crafting a funding solution that will get a 71-vote majority in his chamber. Miller also filed legislation that would enact a 3 percent statewide sales tax on the wholesale price of gas, authorize the Maryland Transit Administration to create regional transit districts with local revenue-raising capabilities and give county elected officials the option of enacting limited local gas taxes to be used for transportation purposes.

Much of Miller’s bill addresses the “transit versus roads” contention that exists in the State House, driven mostly by rural lawmakers who say their constituents see no value in helping to pay for transit systems they will never use.

This is not transit’s first trip to the whipping post in Annapolis. Divisions over the costs of transit have existed for years. The reality is there is not a single transit system in the world that pays for itself without government subsidy. The level of subsidy is a valid issue, but the debate should focus on the question of what it will take to establish a sustainable and flexible fiscal resource dedicated to funding the full breadth of the state’s highways, transit, port and airport facilities.

From the beginning, rural lawmakers have been concerned that operational and capital funding for transit would swallow up billions that could otherwise be spent on roads. Detractors blame transit as the principal reason for the state’s transportation funding crisis. Though the majority of revenue to the transportation fund comes from highway users through gas taxes and Motor Vehicle Administration fees, an imbalance exists between funding that goes to transit as opposed to roads, they contend. They call for correcting the funding imbalance and increasing farebox recovery from transit users.

It’s true 57 percent of the Transportation Trust Fund’s revenue comes from vehicle titling taxes, gas taxes, registrations and other MVA fees, according to current data from the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Annual capital funding from the transportation fund for the State Highway Administration versus transit systems in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. regions has decreased from a 3-to-1 ratio in FY 2008 to a 3-to-2 ratio in FY 2013. Meanwhile, operating funding for transit has escalated at a significantly greater rate than for the SHA.

It’s easy for detractors to imply there would be adequate funding to pay for the state’s roads and bridges if transit funding were “rebalanced” and the fare box recovery percentage was increased.

But they’re mistaken.

Experts calculate the state needs at least $700 million to $800 million a year in new revenue to the transportation fund in order to adequately address the backlog of more than $40 billion in unfunded construction projects for roads, bridges, transit, port and airport facilities.

If the current farebox recovery requirement of 35 percent were increased to 50 percent, as proposed by some lawmakers, it would yield an annual increase in revenue to the transportation fund of roughly $45 million, nowhere near enough money to address our transportation needs.

Our transportation funding crisis is not about transit. It’s much broader than that.

The notion that there would be enough money in our state’s Transportation Trust Fund for roads and bridges if it weren’t for transit is more a red herring than a valid reason for not pursuing some kind of gas tax increase for the trust fund.

As for the ultimate outcome – quality mobility in Maryland – our D.C. suburbs continue to have the worst traffic congestion in the nation and the Baltimore region is second-worst among similarly-sized metro areas, according to the latest Texas Transportation Institute report.

The question is, with our state legislative leaders newly focused on the transportation funding crisis, is this the year we finally do something about it?

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