With little opposition and less debate, the Maryland Senate enacted a pair of transportation aide measures today providing $23.2 million in state aid to Washington's Metro system next year and guaranteeing state funding for the subway for the next decade.
The measures now go to Gov. Harry Hughes -- the man who originally proposed them to be signed into law. They do not take effect, however, until the legislature enacts a companion education aid proposal, which is expected to win final approval by the weekend.
Today's action, coupled with the Virginia General Assembly's approval of a gasoline tax increase for the Northern Virginia suburbs, leaves the District as the only area jurisdiction yet to comply with a congressional mandate to find a "stable and reliable" source of funding to alleviate Metro's operating deficit.
District Mayor Marion Barry had repeatedly guaranteed that he will comply with the requirement before Congress' Sept. 30 deadline.
"I'm extremely pleased -- that's two out of three," Metro general manager Richard S. Page said on hearing of the Maryland legislature's action.
In Annapolis, however, enactment of the $90 million transportation aid measures, which also provide money for the Baltimore subway system and for roads across the state, was regarded as anticlimactic. All the controversies, large and small, that had threatened to undermine the bill's support were resolved well before today's vote.
In the end, the only opposition to the measures came from a cadre of rural Democrats and Republicans who traditionally oppose large grants to the state's urban areas.
"I never thought there would be a problem . . . this had money for everybody in it," Senate president James Clark Jr. said shortly after the two measures had been approved by a 2-to-1 margin. "Any time there's a lot of money in a bill, it always passes," he added.
Shortly afterward, Hughes noted that when he first proposed the transportation aid measures "I didn't realize that it would go this smoothly.
"But on the other hand, I'm not totally surprised," he said. "Last year, we opposed the proposals that came before the legislature and we said we'd come back with something [else] this year. And we did."
It took an abundance of state revenue, however, to ensure political harmony on the transportation issue.
Two months ago, when the transportation package was first proposed, it appeared to be headed for a bruising reception in the General Assembly, since it was built around a proposed car registration fee increase. To law-makers acutely conscious of the growing state surplus, any fee increase was anathema.
By late February, new revenue estimates had pushed the size of the surplus well above $300 million, high enough for Hughes to abandon his registration fee proposal and avoid any confrontation with the legislature.
The measures approve today do contain one element that originally produced consternation among Washington suburban legislatures: a requirement that in Montgomery and Prince George's farebox revenues must make up half the system's operating deficit.
If the farebox revenues fall short, it will be up to the county governments of Montgomery and Prince George's to chip in enough money to make up the difference.
Maryland's suburban legislators had been worried that the state was setting an unreasonable requirement, since suburban bus and subway lines, which serve more sparsely populated areas, traditionally produce less revenue than urban lines.
More recently, however, transportation experts in the Washington area have decided that the 50 percent farebox requirements will pose no great difficulty.
"Unless the state did [impose the farebox requirement] there would be less incentive for local governments to maintain a fare structure that would pay for 50 percent of the costs," explained Gene Oishi, Hughes' press secretary.
About two weeks ago, when both the transportation measures and the companion $67 million state education aide measure apparently were moving smoothly, Maryland lawmakers had turned their attention to a variety of parochial squabbles.
However, two of these fights quickly escalated, threatening to create problems for the entire $157 million package.
First, a group of Montgomery County senators vowed they would change a portion of the education proposal that required local governments to pick up a small percentage of teachers' social security pension costs.
This section of the bill, favored by Hughes and such powerful Baltimore City legislators as House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, would have cost Montgomery County between $400,000 and $500,000 in one year, and raised fears that in future years the state's poorer and more densely populated subdivisions would try to take away a greater and greater proportion of state aid from wealthy counties such as Montgomery.
The Montgomery senators' fight was successful, as early this week they reached a compromise that included elimination of this section of the education proposal.
Then Prince George's legislators chimed in with their own objections, complaining that their Montgomery County colleagues had sold them out by abandoning the fight for additional state payments on Metro bonds.
These lawmakers then proceeded to join a filibuster on an unrelated bond bill, leaving the transportation proposals in limbo while they helped delay the Senate's business long enough to win a $1.1 million concession from the governor.
With that dispute resolved, no obstacles remained and the transportation measures were approved without a word being uttered in debate.
"You expect some opposition from areas that do not have mass transit," Hughes said yesterday commenting on the vote.
But, the governor added, the opposition was only token "because it was a pretty well-balanced package," spreading out aid to both rural and urban areas.