This week’s report on the sorry state of transportation funding in Maryland landed on the desks of state legislators with a resounding thud as the General Assembly entered the final days of its annual 90-day session with much work left undone.
For those legislators who keep looking the other way and repeating their mantra — “Crisis, what crisis? I don’t see a transportation funding crisis.” — there clearly is one.
Even the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Donald C. Fry, who does not speak in hyperbole, said the latest findings make it “hard for me to believe that we have not reached that crisis stage at this time.”
The report from TRIP, a national transportation research group, ranked the top 40 projects that would help improve transportation and quality of life in Maryland.
Topping the list is a $5.8 billion widening of the Capital Beltway in Montgomery and Price George’s counties, followed by replacing the Governor Harry W. Nice Bridge between Charles County and Virginia for $855 million.
Four of the top 10 projects are in the Baltimore metropolitan area, including the third-ranked project in Maryland on TRIP’s list — the $1.2 billion widening, rehabilitation and replacement of three Baltimore Beltway bridges.
There are big-ticket items for mass transit as well — $1.9 billion for the Purple Line in the Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and $2.2 billion for the Red Line in Baltimore.
There may be room to debate the ranking of the projects (the study determined the order based on data from state, federal and local sources) and it is fair to note that TRIP is supported by insurance companies, labor unions, equipment manufacturers and businesses involved in highway and transit construction.
But the report reaches the same basic conclusions of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, which said a year ago in its interim report to the governor and legislature that “…the state’s transportation system finds itself on the verge of financial collapse unless action is taken now to change course for a new, more secure heading.”
We are still waiting to see that “new, more secure heading.”
The commission’s first recommendation was to “put the trust back in Transportation Trust Fund,” meaning safeguards to assure that cash-strapped governors and legislatures would stop raiding transportation coffers to pay for other expenses. Still no action on that front.
There has also been no action yet in terms of generating new resources for transportation. Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed a 6 percent sales tax on gas to replenish state transportation funds, but there seems to be little if any legislative will to do that in the face of rising prices at the pump, and the governor has not forced the issue.
The clock is ticking and the state’s transportation needs are mounting. There is a steep price to be paid for inaction, and Maryland’s elected leaders seem willing to pay it.
In terms of investment priorities, the Red and Purple lines should top the list. The Purple Line, for example, has the potential to pull enough traffic off of the Capital beltway to make its existing capacity satisfactory and widening it redundant. Anytime we increase road capacity, it is consumed within a decade by more drivers and more widening is demanded. It is a vicious cycle that is totally economically and land-use unsustainable.