ANNAPOLIS — When — and if — dozens of proposed transportation projects are completed, Maryland will be connected by 44 additional miles of light rail, another Baltimore train station, and more development around Metro stations.
But without some change — like a hike in the fuel tax — to the structure of the Transportation Trust Fund, which funds the Maryland Department of Transportation, the state might not be able to pay for needed improvements to infrastructure and capital projects that include Baltimore’s Red Line, the Purple Line and Metro improvements, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said.
State income from the fuel tax, the source of about one-fifth of the revenue for the trust fund, has decreased for the past four years, dropping from $758 million in 2006 to $721 million in 2010, according to MDOT figures.
The trust fund is affected by the drop in revenue from both fuel taxes and vehicle titling fees, which can be attributed to the economic downturn, more energy-efficient cars and an increase in the use of mass transit, said Erin Henson, an MDOT spokeswoman. The trust fund also gets money from the federal government.
“Maryland does heavily rely on fees generated from fuel consumption and vehicle purchases,” Henson said. “This is why we’re looking at a more sustainable way of funding transportation.”
The 23.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax has not changed since 1992. Miller has pushed previously for an increase in the tax to pay for state transportation projects, but he said he is not advocating a tax hike this year because of the recession.
“As the recession ends, we might increase it,” Miller said. “We’ve got these massive backups — roads need improvements, bridges need [to be] built, rapid rail. We have no money to make these improvements. … The money’s not there.”
No immediate danger
However, large capital projects like the light rails depend not only on state funding, but also on federal funding, said Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel. This means a decrease in revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund does not put the projects in immediate danger, if federal funding is secured.
The Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile light rail connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is entering the New Starts evaluation process with the Federal Transit Administration, project manager Mike Madden said. In a few months, it should be approved to begin the preliminary engineering phase, which will last 18 months to two years.
“We’re definitely making a lot of progress,” Madden said. “This whole New Starts process takes longer than we initially thought it would. It … gets into a lot of detailed information that needs to be submitted and reviewed.”
In the preliminary engineering phase for the project that would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton, staff members will complete more detailed design work and meet with residents, property owners and community associations to solicit input on the designs, Madden said.
Gov. Martin O’Malley allocated $49 million from trust fund revenue projections for the Purple Line’s New Starts phase, MDOT’s Henson said.
Over fiscal 2011-2014, $237 million will be allocated to pay for preliminary engineering, final design and right-of-way acquisition, Madden said. This does not include cost of construction, slated to begin in late 2014 and end by 2019.
The Purple Line will not be part of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, but WMATA will have to approve connections with Metro at the Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton stations.
Because more than 40 percent of Purple Line riders also will take Metro on a given trip, Madden said the Purple Line team is working with WMATA to arrange for easy transfers and fare payments when both systems are used.
Though construction on Baltimore’s Red Line is scheduled to begin before the Purple Line, it also is just preparing its application to enter the preliminary engineering phase, said Henry Kay, the deputy administrator for planning and engineering for the Maryland Transit Administration.
The application to the federal government, which should be finished around March, puts the project — a 14-mile light rail with 20 stations that will connect Baltimore from east to west — on track to net federal funding in the future, Kay said.
In about two years, Kay said, project managers will apply for permission to move into the final engineering stage.
The Red Line plan also includes a new train station on the MARC Penn line north of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The Bayview station was a feature of a rail plan proposed 10 years ago, Kay said, but has been developed further in conjunction with the Red Line.
Both the Red and Purple Lines are slated to be light rail, as opposed to the less expensive rapid bus transit systems. Kay acknowledged that light rail systems are more expensive to build, but he said they are less expensive to operate.
“We think in terms of lifecycle costs,” he said. “We compare the cost against the benefit to the community. Light rail was the best choice for us.”
A third proposed light rail, the Corridor Cities Transitway, runs for 14 miles northwest from the Shady Grove Metro station to south of Clarksburg, following I-270 partway.
Metro another priority
Metro is another priority of O’Malley’s administration, Henson said. MDOT is working with corresponding agencies in Virginia and the District of Columbia to address safety concerns, to improve customer service, and to arrange for additional capital investments in the system. There also is “so much potential” for transit-oriented developments around Metro stations, Henson said.
These hefty capital projects come at a time when the state faces a $1.3 billion budget deficit, and though the deficit does not directly affect the trust fund, “it doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t tighten their belts,” said MDOT spokesman Jack Cahalan.
But projects like the light rails and Metro improvements are critical to meeting O’Malley’s goal of doubling transit ridership by the end of 2020, Henson said.
“These projects will add ridership, tie existing rail lines together, and create jobs and economic opportunities in existing communities,” she said. “The Purple Line is truly essential in connecting the region’s major communities and commercial centers.”