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Editorial: Transportation storm brewing

Storm clouds are forming over Washington again, and this time the cause is not Hurricane Irene or the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. It’s the looming expiration of federal transportation funding for state highways and transit systems.

The law authorizing highway and transit spending, which includes the federal gasoline tax, will expire Sept. 30 without congressional action. Given the recent inability of Congress to agree on much of anything without partisan meltdowns that either cut off funding for critical programs or come within inches of national default, there is ample reason for states and localities to be very worried as the clock ticks toward Sept. 30.

Maryland lawmakers were briefed by state transportation officials last week on just how bad things could get here if federal dollars for sorely needed transportation projects stop flowing. The answer: very bad, very fast.

Caitlin Hughes Rayman, assistant state secretary of transportation policy, told a legislative committee that if Congress allows the federal gas tax to expire, Maryland would lose between $45 million and $65 million each month in federal funds for roads and bridges, affecting funding for as many as 700 jobs.

Beyond that, Ms. Rayman said that even if proposed legislation in the House of Representatives for surface transportation funding is passed, it would reduce current spending levels by 35 percent, costing Maryland more than $170 million a year. By contrast, the previous federal spending authorization for surface transportation increased funding for highways by 31 percent and for transit by 48 percent.

“We’re not going to see those kinds of increases anytime soon, despite the fact that a couple of national-level study commissions chartered by Congress have demonstrated needs significantly in excess of even current levels,” Ms. Rayman said.

She added, “The phrase you always heard in a presentation was there are no Democratic or Republican roads or transit systems or something else, but the point is there certainly are now.”

This latest crisis-in-waiting puts that much more pressure on state policymakers trying to chart a responsible fiscal course as the 2012 legislative session approaches with Maryland facing as much as a $1 billion shortfall in the 2011-12 budget.

There is already discussion of a possible increase in the state gasoline tax to meet vital transportation infrastructure needs. But depending on what the feds do, much of a state gas tax hike might have to be spent on replacing diminished federal funds to merely maintain the status quo, which is already inadequate.

Funding for roads, bridges, ports and mass transit is critical for our economy. Given current fiscal conditions, federal funding will probably have to be somewhat curtailed. But whatever the outcome, Congress needs to act before Sept. 30 to keep funds flowing to vital projects so that states can then make informed decisions about their own budgets. Anything less would be the height of irresponsibility.