Death and taxes aren't the only inevitabilities in life. The cost of growing old is inevitable too. But I'm not talking people here. I'm talking infrastructure.
Infrastructure is an overused word. We really are talking about schools, subways, sewer systems, highways -- anything that involves pouring concrete.
Maryland has poured a lot of concrete in the past 50 years. Think of what our region looked like in 1954, before the Capital Beltway, Interstate 95 and Metro; before our modern sanitary systems; and before most public schools were built. Back then the University of Maryland was a small fraction of its current size.
In the 1960s and '70s, the region's growth exploded. Most Maryland public schools were constructed after 1971, when the state assumed the costs of public school construction. The heavy capital investment in Metro occurred then too, as did the investment in the construction of I-95 in Maryland.
Today the bill is coming due on maintenance and replacement of all this infrastructure. Anyone who owns a 50-year-old house knows what that means, but when it comes to aging public facilities, many elected officials are dodging reality.
Take the public schools. A task force chaired by Nancy Kopp, the highly respected state treasurer, has identified $3.85 billion that will be needed in public school construction and repair during the next decade. One-third of this amount will be needed just to repair failing mechanical systems.
Yet state funding for public school construction has declined in the past three years, from $286 million to $100 million. Local governments have raised money from property taxes and developer fees to pay their share, but Maryland's share of public school construction has been heading in the wrong direction.
The Kopp task force said, "Maryland is facing a crisis in public school construction." Kopp proposed increasing the state's debt ceiling to begin addressing the crisis. Maryland could do this and still maintain its triple-A bond rating, but the move would put pressure on the state property tax rate.
Most Marylanders are willing to pay slightly higher property taxes to avoid sending children to crumbling schools. Although the anti-tax crowd will grumble, public school enrollment is growing and old buildings are dying. These costs will not be going away. Fortunately, under the Maryland Constitution, the legislature can increase public school construction funding, even if the Ehrlich administration doesn't.
Similar challenges confront the state's higher education system, which has a backlog of capital improvement needs. Maryland expects annual enrollment at its institutions of higher education to increase by 20,000 during the next 10 years, but it has no space for at least half of the expected new students. It also has no viable plan for dealing with the imminent enrollment crunch.
Maryland's transportation system needs help, too. A year ago, a commission headed by former transportation secretary William Hellman identified $4.7 billion in unmet transportation needs, including highway maintenance and expansion, and modernization of Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the Port of Baltimore. This year's increase in registration fees barely dented the problem. Maryland's major transportation revenue source -- the gasoline tax -- seems untouchable given the record prices at the pumps.
Metro also is showing its age. In the past 40 years, taxpayers have invested $40 billion in the system. Metro has developed a six-year capital improvement program of $3.3 billion to rehabilitate its bus and subway systems, expand service and improve security, but it lacks funding for at least a third of that plan.
Maryland knows how to be creative in funding capital improvements. Earlier this year Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the legislature showed leadership by enacting a $30 yearly fee for all users of public sewer and private septic systems. This "flush tax" will generate $77 million annually to repair aging sewer systems that have been polluting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
This kind of creativity needs to be applied to education and transportation. Maryland's infrastructure isn't getting any younger, and the longer the state waits, the more expensive the solutions will be.
Maryland knows what kind of capital improvements are needed. The real question is whether its elected officials will spend the political capital to make them happen.
The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is email@example.com.