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Maryland transportation funding situation clouded by the feds

As Maryland searches for a sustainable way to fund its transportation needs, the work being done in Annapolis will likely be overshadowed by changes being made in Washington.

“I’m not sure we can anticipate the feds are going to bail us out. We’re entering a new era,” Anne P. Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, told the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding.

The state relies on the federal government for about 20 percent of its transportation funding, and Gov. Martin O’Malley is hoping for federal dollars to make up at least half of the construction costs of the Red and Purple Light Rail lines.

Jack Basso, director of program finance and management for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the Obama administration is expected to release its long-term transportation funding bill in February. He said he expects the plan will emphasize funding for transit and passenger rail, promote transit-oriented development, and seek to create an infrastructure bank to spark private investment in transportation projects.

Congress has failed to pass a long-term transportation funding plan, relying on short-term funding extensions for a year. And any changes in 2011 will have to navigate a Democratic Senate and the newly Republican House of Representatives. One of the victims of the Republican wave on Nov. 2 was Rep. James L. Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The transportation advocates urged the state commission to move forward with changes to Maryland’s funding mechanisms without waiting for the federal government.

“We’re living off the investments of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and saying ‘OK, we’ve done that,’ ” said Susan J. Binder, senior associate of Cambridge Systematics Inc., a Massachusetts-based consulting firm.

Both Maryland and Washington will have to grapple with gas taxes that have become less effective as they’ve remain unchanged for nearly two decades. The presidential debt commission recommended last week the U.S. raise its gas tax gradually by 15 cents starting in 2013. (The full report is here, and the gas tax recommendation is on page 29.) But even increases to the taxes may not give funding the boost advocates hope for as more people buy fuel-efficient cars or hop on trains and buses.

Basso said one option being discussed is a tax on the miles a vehicle travels, rather than the fuel it uses. The Greater Baltimore Committee — CEO Donald C. Fry is on the transportation commission — has studied that idea and others, including increased tolls and public-private partnerships. The GBC is expected to release its report this year.

How the state invests its transportation funds — and really, what’s the fun in discussing these billion-dollar problems without getting into what you’re going to spend it all on — will have big-time implications over the next two decades for growth in the state, said Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall.

If current trends continue through 2030, the state expects to see more than 560,000 more acres of open land developed to accommodate 1 million new residents. (For comparison’s sake, 560,000 acres is 875 square miles, or 10 times the area of Baltimore.) That additional sprawl means more driving. Under that scenario, the state expects the average Marylander to drive 11,817 miles in 2030.

Maryland drivers travel nearly 10,000 miles per year, and their 31.3-minute average commute is second only to drivers in New York.

Limiting most of the growth to developed areas — only 163,000 more acres would be developed — would save the average driver about 1,000 miles per year, and save the state big bucks on roadway maintenance to boot.

“What we’ve seen in Maryland is sprawl development costs more, whether it’s schools, sewers or roads,” Hall said.