Blizzard points to transportation needs

By Len Lazarick

Plowman in Chief Martin O’Malley has been the public face of the Blizzard of 2010, seen and heard more in the media over the weekend than in the wake of last Tuesday’s State of the State address.

The formal trappings of power in the marbled State House were replaced this weekend with a show of casually-dressed executive power in a mundane briefing room at the State Highway Administration command center in Hanover.

The monster storm very likely busted Maryland’s budget for snow removal from roads, rails and runways, but buried in the drifts was any mention of the long-term transportation problems facing the state.

What citizens expect

Governors and mayors become especially visible in emergencies, which is what citizens expect. Elected leaders need to act like they’re in charge of operations, and they may actually need to take charge. Only the governor can order out the National Guard, formally request federal aid, or get all the state agencies under his control on the same page.

All the talk-radio jabber that government never gets anything done right largely ignores all the mundane functioning of the 21st Century techno-state.

But this storm points to an essential government function that has gone underfunded and neglected for years – transportation. The O’Malley administration touts increased spending on public schools and higher education over the last three years, along with an expansion of health coverage.

However,transportation funding has been flat, stuck at around $3.5 billion. The one exception was a $100 million bump in the first budget O’Malley submitted. The state transportation budget for roads, transit, the Port of Baltimore and the airports is actually smaller this year than in fiscal 2007, though O’Malley has proposed a 4% increase for 2011.

The State Highway Administration – the agency with the plows, salt trucks and front-end loaders – has fared even worse. Its $1.8 billion budget in fiscal 2007 has gone down every year and is now almost 30 percent lower at $1.3 billion, though the governor has proposed a 10 percent increase for next year.

No political will

Is this O’Malley fault? Hardly. Not unless you blame him for both the recession and the failure of the General Assembly and the Congress to find the political will to raise gasoline taxes.

O’Malley proposed tying the the gasoline tax to construction costs in 2007 as part of the record tax hikes passed in the special session, but the idea was dismissed almost immediately. The legislature did raise the vehicle titling tax, and put some of the increased sales tax into the Transportation Trust Fund.

The state hasn’t raised its 23.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax in 15 years, following regular increases of 5 cents per gallon every five years for the prior 15 years.

Business groups, which have generally opposed increases in the sales, income and corporate tax rates, have strongly backed increasing the gas tax. Two of the loudest voices for such a tax hike headed O’Malley’s transition team on transportation. In a report to the newly inaugurated O’Malley in January 2007, Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, wrote:

“Maryland’s transportation system is one of its most valuable assets from both an economic development and quality of life standpoint. Maryland’s natural location advantage cannot be translated into good paying jobs without a high quality transportation network. Increasing demands for mobility and a rising population are placing unprecedented strains on that system…”

“There is, however, no additional revenue available to pay for increased project budgets or new capital or operating initiatives. This circumstance will severely constrain the incoming administration’s ability to meet future needs or support new initiatives. Based on this fact, we strongly recommend the O’Malley administration plan for a major revenue increase.”

Never happened.

Compounding the lack of state funds are the empty coffers at the federal Highway Trust Fund, which Congress has refused to replenish with an increase in any federal transportation tax. And O’Malley is proposing to again take 95 percent of the highway user funds the counties use for their own roads, and put it in the general fund.

Gloomy estimate

These circumstances led to a rather gloomy estimate last week from legislative budget analysts going over O’Malley’s proposed transportation budget.

The analysts said the Transportation Department can’t really pay for its long-term plans, and argued that the forecast of increased titling fee revenues is too rosy, as is its hope for more federal dollars.

There is also little room to expand DOT spending through bond debt. Even before the blizzard hit, the analysts were wondering where highway officials would get the money to refill the empty snow removal budget, since all the other highway budgets were cut to the bone.

The department argued for its estimates on car and truck sales, and disputed other parts of the analysis. But it admitted that “federal funding is the key to delivering the capital program.”

So while the snow budget is completely blown, and road and transit needs go unmet, there is no political will on the state or federal level to raise the gasoline tax or other transportation revenues. Senate President Mike Miller has repeatedly urged such a tax hike for a decade, to no avail.

Schools and universities have been a top budget priority, but highways and mass transit should be as well.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Gov. Bob Ehrlich raised the title tax; he did not. Ehrlich raised registration fees.]

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