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Boosting funding for transportation may not make 2012 session agenda

ANNAPOLIS — The Red Line and Purple Line light rail projects will not be built unless Maryland boosts transportation revenue, but that issue could be crowded out in 2012 by more pressing state needs.

Lawmakers will face a $1 billion budget deficit when they return to Annapolis in January, one that will require much political wrangling and likely lead to difficult votes on program cuts and, potentially, tax increases. On top of that, some in the General Assembly and business community are pushing for $800 million in new transportation revenues fueled in part by a gas tax hike.

“I don’t think you can do both at the same time,” said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. “Although we need to do both, it’s probably impractical to hope for that.

“It boils down to how much the average person can deal with, as a burden, when they’re unemployed, making less than they used to,” he said, adding that he didn’t expect transportation funding to be addressed in next month’s special session.

Transportation funding became a top issue in Maryland after the conclusion of the 2011 legislative session in April. Gov. Martin O’Malley met with business leaders, local elected officials and state legislators to discuss the state’s needs and options, and a commission is meeting to explore ways to increase state spending on roads, bridges and trains.

The Red Line in Baltimore City and Baltimore County was moved forward in the federal pipeline to a stage that greatly increases its chances of federal funding this summer, and the state is hoping the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties makes the same leap this year.

The state’s share of those projects could total $2 billion, and possibly more.

“Without funding increases, we will continue in a status quo situation where our focus is on system preservation and we won’t be able to do the MARC expansion we want to do, the transit expansion we want to do, the highway projects,” Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley testified Wednesday before Kasemeyer’s committee.

Kasemeyer said the governor backing a transportation package could change the equation.

“I think that helps, certainly, to have his support,” Kasemeyer said. Without it, tackling transportation in addition to the deficit will be “insurmountable,” he said.

A spokeswoman for O’Malley would not say if raising transportation revenues would be a part of the governor’s plans for 2012.

“All options will be discussed as we move forward in building our legislative agenda,” said Raquel Guillory, the spokeswoman. The governor’s full agenda is typically unveiled around the start of the legislative session in mid-January.

As evidenced at the hearing Wednesday, the transportation debate will be a complicated one, with regional factions and statewide interest groups all approaching it from different angles.

The state’s largest business groups — the Greater Baltimore Committee, Greater Washington Board of Trade and Maryland Chamber of Commerce — advocate a gas tax hike. Environmentalists have raised concerns about spending too much more on highways rather than transportation.

When a budget analyst floated the idea of Montgomery and Prince George’s assuming some of the state’s obligation to the Washington metro system, Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery, asked if the Baltimore region could shoulder more of the burden of the Maryland Transit Administration.

Rural lawmakers oppose using increased gas tax revenues for mass transit systems that benefit urban areas. As a result, much of the discussion at the hearing centered on the possibility of creating special taxing districts to support local transit projects.

“I think the concern here is that if the tax is imposed on the motoring public, then it should be put back into the roadways so the motoring public can [benefit],” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll and Frederick.

Northern Virginia uses a 2.1 percent tax on gasoline assessed on distributors to support transit projects.

A 1 percent regional sales tax for Central Maryland on top of the state’s 6 percent would bring in $400 million annually, according to state budget analysts.

Much of the transportation funding situation, however, is out of the state’s hands. The federal government is expected to contribute $770 million, or 21 percent, of the $3.7 billion Maryland transportation budget this year.

Swaim-Staley said the Department of Transportation anticipates Congress will pass a six-month extension of federal transportation aid by the end of the month.

Beyond the extension, however, lies more uncertainty. The House of Representatives prefers a six-year funding bill that would cut yearly allotments, while the Senate favors a two-year deal that holds funding stable. Either one, or neither, would leave the future of the Red Line and Purple Line up in the air.

“It’s hard to do these large projects without a long-term bill,” Swaim-Staley said.

President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act would send $625 million to Maryland for highways and transit, but its passage is far from certain.