August 3, 2012

It’s no secret that Maryland leads the nation in traffic congestion (the Washington suburbs are No. 1; the Baltimore region is No. 5).

Nor is it a secret why: The combination of increased fuel efficiency, the Great Recession and rising and fluctuating oil prices has blown a big hole in Maryland’s transportation trust fund, which finances investment in roads, bridges and transit.  

With families and businesses continuing to suffer from the weak economy, a majority of the Maryland legislature have been understandably unwilling to raise the gasoline tax for the first time in 20 years. Additionally, periodic borrowing from the fund to balance the state’s general-fund budget and the drastic cuts in funds for local transportation services (Highway User Revenue) have made many Marylanders skeptical about where increased transportation revenue will be invested.  

We believe it’s time for new ideas — and we intend to propose one at the special session of the General Assembly that begins Aug. 9. We have drafted a constitutional amendment authorizing the governor and legislature to draw up a specific plan for major public investment in roads, bridges and transit and present the plan to the voters for approval in a subsequent referendum.

Such an approach would be new in Maryland, but it is common in other states and regions. In the past three years, 74 referendums for transportation programs have been approved by voters in 18 states.

Our proposed amendment would not prejudge the projects or the revenue sources. Those would be developed by the governor and the legislature, after our constitutional amendment has been passed and ratified. Specific transportation packages would be adopted by the legislature and presented to the voters for approval.

Our amendment would simply give the governor and the legislature the authority to present a plan to the voters (the amendment is needed because the state Constitution currently does not allow such referendums). The amendment also includes a provision ensuring that funds raised in such a referendum would be used only for the purposes approved by the legislature and the voters.  

Our “End the Gridlock” amendment would itself need to be passed by the legislature and approved by the voters. That could be done whenever the legislature agrees to it. But for it to get on the ballot this November, it needs to be passed by the legislature in the special session.

This special session should fight gridlock, not just expand gambling. We see no reason to wait until 2013. Regardless whether the legislature raises revenue for a transportation plan without a referendum (Maryland’s traditional approach) or the governor and the legislature choose to take a transportation program to the voters, adopting our “End the Gridlock” amendment would give the state another practical option to reduce congestion.  

Maryland has the nation’s best schools. We shouldn’t have its worst traffic.

Jim Rosapepe and Brian Feldman, Annapolis

The writers, both Democrats, represent Prince George’s County in the Maryland Senate and Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates, respectively.