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Joe Nathanson: How do we get our region out of gridlock?

Atlanta-area voters went to the polls Tuesday to determine whether they were willing to add another penny to their sales tax for 10 years to generate $8.5 billion for the region’s overburdened transportation network.

The referendum was the outcome of a process that led to a 2010 report documenting the stranglehold that traffic has on the Atlanta region and the urgent need for a remedy.

Maryland had its own attempt to come up with new resources for transportation. The problem is that the old financial model — based largely on the gasoline tax — no longer works.

Over the last four decades, following the first oil shock of 1973, there has been a successful effort to increase auto fuel efficiency. We may drive more, but we now travel more miles for each gallon of gas. And, in the years of the economic downturn, we are actually driving less.

Seeking a new approach, Maryland established a task force on transportation funding. The group came out with its recommendations last December. A menu of funding options was made available for consideration by the 2012 Maryland General Assembly and, again, much of the discussion centered on the gas tax.

But, in the face of rising gas prices, peaking while the General Assembly was in session, the members of the legislature became skittish about raising any new transportation revenue and ultimately abandoned efforts for this year.

Losing ground

Where does this leave us?

Michelle Whelley is CEO and president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), which advocates for a robust multi-modal transportation system with a particular focus on serving the region’s employers and employees.

CMTA has placed particular emphasis on the expansion of public transportation in the Baltimore/ Washington region, including regional commuter rail, high-speed rail and bus rapid transit.

Ms. Whelley, who served as a member of the transportation funding task force, made a presentation earlier this year in which she pointed out that Maryland and the Baltimore region are falling further behind in trying to remain competitive with regard to transportation investments.

In a review of peer metro regions, generally with populations between 2 and 4 million, Baltimore is a notable underachiever.

Not that rail transit is the answer to all local transportation needs, but we have a ready measure in how we are falling behind. In the last 15 years the Minneapolis-St. Paul region has added 52.3 miles of rail transit capacity; the Portland area expanded by 55.4 miles (light rail, commuter rail and street car lines) and the Seattle region has added 98.8 miles, including 82 miles of commuter rail. The Denver, St. Louis and San Diego regions each have added between 27 to 30 miles of rail transit capacity.

Locally, the Maryland Transit Administration completed its light rail extensions to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Penn Station and Hunt Valley in 1997. Beyond completing some sections of double-tracking, no additional capacity has been to the system since then.

Southern strategy

So how do we get out of our legislative gridlock?

What has not happened in Baltimore or in Maryland is an extensive public information campaign to explain the benefits of injecting new dollars into the state’s transportation trust fund and the costs of enduring greater traffic congestion without that funding.

For example, in the weeks leading up to the referendum in Georgia, nearly 25,000 Atlanta-area residents participated in a series of “wireside chats” hosted by the Atlanta Regional Commission. These telephone town hall meetings allowed those calling in to learn specifics of the projects that would funded by the tax increase.

Both Georgia’s Republican governor and the Democratic mayor of Atlanta supported the referendum, but there was heavy opposition from opponents ranging from the tea party to the Sierra Club, which wanted to see more transit included in the list of regional projects.

The results of the Georgia referendum may be very instructive for those seeking a solution to Maryland’s lack of transportation funding. Let’s see what lessons we can learn from the experiment down South.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.