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Transportation money not in governor’s agenda

Noticeably missing in the legislative agenda unveiled Friday by Gov. Martin O’Malley was anything to address the state’s dearth of money to pay for mass transit projects and maintain highways, roads and bridges.

O’Malley has frequently spoken of raising money for such projects since the start of the 433rd General Assembly last week, suggesting two plans: raising the state’s 23.5-cent tax on a gallon of gasoline or increasing the state’s sales tax to 7 percent. Both presiding officers of the legislature agree raising money for transportation is a priority.

Business leaders have called for a gas tax increase the last several sessions of the legislature, as the state’s crumbling infrastructure and congested highways threaten to stifle economic development. O’Malley told business leaders assembled in Annapolis this week that an active campaign for transportation money was needed to force action.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, said Friday it “remains to be seen” whether the governor will introduce legislation that could create a new revenue stream to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which state fiscal analysts predict will only be able to pay for maintenance by July 2017.

The legislature rebuffed the governor’s transportation plans last year, and O’Malley seemed to express an interest this week in hearing their ideas rather than trying to advance his own.

House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has been silent on possible alternatives. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, has expressed an interest in creating a regional transportation authority that would tax citizens in urban areas to pay for mass transit. Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, has suggested such a model in the past.

“We have certain areas of the state that want these mass transit projects and others that will never benefit from them. The people that want them should pay for them,” Pipkin said in a recent interview. “The idea that the entire state should pay for these amazingly expensive mass transit projects needs to end. There’s not enough money to go around.

“We have the money to deal with road projects if we don’t have to deal with mass transit.”

Onlookers have suggested that setting up a regional transportation authority and then taxing those within that coverage area would be a complex solution that could take multiple sessions of the legislature to complete.

But O’Malley, at the moment, prefers a statewide model for funding transportation. Miller said this week that he’ll give O’Malley the first crack at offering a transportation bill, and that other options won’t be cooked up until after the governor’s annual State of the State address on Jan. 30.