Local officials call for ‘huge infusion’ of transportation funding from Maryland

Traffic over the American Legion Bridge along I-495, the Capitol Beltway. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

About 150 local officials and transportation advocates converged on Annapolis on Wednesday to underscore what they said is an urgent need for hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding from the Maryland General Assembly in its coming session.

“We can no longer afford to ignore this problem,” Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) told the gathering, lamenting unheeded calls in recent years to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for additional road and mass transit projections as congestion has continued to worsen. What’s needed now, he said, is “a huge infusion of cash.”

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That view was largely echoed by the executives of Prince George’s and Howard counties, as well as the president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners.

How persuasive they will be remains to be seen. State lawmakers have balked in recent years at raising the gas tax, the largest source of transportation funding, and it’s not clear this year will be any different when they convene Jan 9.

Maryland’s 23.5 cent gas tax was last raised in 1992. Polls have shown it to be among the least popular of the state’s levies.

On Wednesday, even Warren Deschenaux, the legislature’s nonpartisan chief fiscal analyst, acknowledged the funding situation is “quite dire” in a presentation he was invited to give at the “summit,” which was pulled together by Montgomery County Council member George Leventhal (D) and others.

After 2017, Deschenaux noted, the state has no money budgeted for any new highway construction. Ditto for construction of the three major transit projects that have gotten so much attention: the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, the Red Line in Baltimore and the Corridor Cities Transitway along the I-270 Corridor in Montgomery County.

While alternate means of financing have been discussed, the bottom line is that such projects will require significant increases in taxes or tolls, Deschenaux said.

“There is no way of creating money without a good color copier, and I’m not sure that is a good long-term strategy,” he said.

During the last 90-day legislative session, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) proposed applying the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline, a move that was estimated to raise more than $600 million a year for transportation projects. That bill did not go anywhere in either chamber. O’Malley has said little about his intentions for this coming session.

Legislative analysts said they estimate it would take another $800 million in annual state cash flow to finance the Purple and Red lines as of 2017, assuming the federal government commits to paying for half of those projects.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) warned that failure to pass a transportation package this session also could impede several economic development projects in his county, including a new casino and plans for areas surrounding Metro stations.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) urged the group to make a campaign-style push for passage of additional funding that engages the public.

“We have to actually sell a vision that convinces people,” said Ulman, who is among the Democrats jockeying to succeed O’Malley in the 2014 elections.

 
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