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Business leaders: Lawmakers need to raise money for roads

Michael J. Ward, President and CEO of CSX Corporation (speaking); Governor of Pennsylvania Edward G. Rendell; Deputy Secretary John D. Porcari, U.S. Department of Transportaion.

Michael J. Ward, President and CEO of CSX Corporation (speaking); Governor of Pennsylvania Edward G. Rendell; Deputy Secretary John D. Porcari, U.S. Department of Transportaion.

State and federal lawmakers need to raise more money to repair aging roads, bridges and rail lines, and build the next generation of transportation infrastructure, business leaders and public officials said Wednesday.

“To have a first-class transportation system, whether it be rails, roads, freight or airports, we have to pay the piper,” Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell said at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s summit in transportation funding.

Rendell, a Democrat, has teamed with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, to advocate for transportation issues across the country.

He called lawmakers in Washington “scared rabbits” and urged business owners to hold them accountable for avoiding tough votes that would raise money for infrastructure projects.

Rendell said states should be allowed to collect tolls on more roads and the federal gas tax should be raised. The gas tax has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

The Maryland General Assembly created a commission in the spring to find new funding sources for transportation projects, with a report due in 2011.

“It’s about how we make Maryland one of the most economically viable states in the country with our transportation network,” Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said.

In the meantime, Maryland business interests will be pushing state lawmakers this year to increase the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1992. It stands at 23.5 cents per gallon.

The GBC and Maryland Chamber of Commerce both support an increase, and advocated for one in the 2010 General Assembly session.

“Without the business community making their voices louder and louder and louder, things like [increasing the gas tax] won’t happen,” said Michele L. Whelley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Fellow commission member Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the GBC, said in addition to a gas tax hike, he supports increased tolling and other yet untried ideas, like a tax on the amount of miles a vehicle travels.

“Transportation and transportation funding is one of the most critical economic development issue we’ll face in the next 10 years,” Fry said.

Transportation officials at the summit touted planned investments in state and federal infrastructure.

The latest draft of the state’s six-year transportation plan includes $90 million for engineering and design work on light rail projects — the Red Line in Baltimore and Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Swaim-Staley said the department expects a federal match of more than $200 million.

On the federal level, a transportation funding bill proposed by President Barack Obama includes $50 billion in upfront spending that will help ease the loss of stimulus dollars in transportation budgets, said John D. Porcari, Swaim-Staley’s predecessor and now deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That proposal also includes an “infrastructure bank” to help transportation projects leverage private investment dollars, an idea that many at the summit said they support.

But, they said, they need more.

“There are still many projects in planning that don’t have a single dollar set aside for construction,” Fry said. “And that puts us behind the 8-ball.”

Michael J. Ward, president and CEO of CSX Corp., said the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014 and the shift of manufacturing further west in Asia will mean big business for freight carriers like his, but will stress the ports and rail lines they use.

“We think a lot more cargo will be coming through the East Coast of the United States,” he said.

CSX is heading an $842 million project to allow freight trains with containers stacked two high to travel through much of the mid-Atlantic, and the stimulus package set aside $8 billion for high-speed rail.

Those investments are a good start, Ward said, but they fall far short of those made by other countries. China, for example, invested $88 billion in rail in 2009.