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O’Malley pitches road needs to city leaders

CAMBRIDGE — Gov. Martin O’Malley made his case to local officials Tuesday night for raising more money to spend on roads, bridges, trains and other transportation projects

“I would really like to stand here tonight and tell you that somehow we can somehow eat cake and lose weight,” O’Malley said, addressing the Maryland Municipal League’s fall conference. “I’d also like to tell you that bridges are like trees and if we leave them alone long enough, they’ll grow taller and stronger, but that’s not true.”

As the General Assembly session in January draws closer, O’Malley is crafting a package of infrastructure spending designed to pump more money into transportation, schools and other projects and spur hiring among construction firms and more spending in the state’s economy.

“Private sector job losses can kill” the recovery, O’Malley said in his address at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina.

O’Malley has taken nearly $1 billion in local transportation aid to patch the state’s budget deficit over the last three years.

Municipalities once split $45 million annually but saw that pool shrink to just $1.6 million. Two of the top three legislative issues for MML are to restore that funding and to protect it from future budget raids.

O’Malley has called on the Democratic leaders of Baltimore City and Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to convince state lawmakers of the need to invest more in transportation. He said Tuesday that if the state can raise enough new revenue, it could increase transportation aid to local governments.

The governor has said he is “considering” a 15-cent gas tax hike recommended Tuesday by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding.

“To create jobs, we must also close our investment deficit — and therefore we have to be open to new revenues,” O’Malley said.

The commission’s report calls for $870 million in new transportation revenue from the gas tax, which would be increased over three years, and a variety of other driver and transit fee hikes.

Most of the money would go to the state’s transportation coffers, but more than $300 million would eventually be sent to county and municipal governments every year under the commission’s plan.

O’Malley called for more mass transit in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs — the state is pushing the Red Line and Purple Line light rail projects in those areas — and suggested Maryland will soon have to look beyond traditional sources of transportation revenue.

“The ways in which we commute to and from work are changing,” he said. “More Marylanders are telecommuting and fewer are purchasing cars.”

O’Malley also warned of another difficult round of budget balancing in the coming year. The state has forecast higher revenues for the next two years, but the deficit in fiscal 2013 is still projected to be about $1 billion.