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Gridlock Maryland: Transportation advocate seeks a broader approach

With the political leadership of Maryland deadlocked over how — or whether — to raise money for transportation projects, there is a growing feeling that the only way to muscle a revenue bill through the General Assembly is to first get the state’s voters on board.

Michele L. Whelley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance

Such a premise has its flaws. Raising the gas tax polls poorly in a state that has seen its share of tax hikes, and there’s little hope of that changing. That makes voting to raise the per-gallon fuel fee unpopular, and thereby politically dangerous for every legislator in every jurisdiction.

But Michele L. Whelley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said a marketing effort targeting the state’s tax-weary residents could help to make the issue less toxic for cautious elected officials who have an eye on the next statewide election in 2014.

“Transportation is not a mom and apple pie issue for the normal Joe on the street,” Whelley said in a recent wide-ranging interview with The Daily Record staff. “In spite of the congestion, and in spite of the lack of ease of getting around, it’s not health care, it’s not education, it’s not tobacco, it’s not marriage equality. It doesn’t have those visceral impacts on the ordinary Joe and Jane on the street.”

Part of the reason is that talk of raising money for transportation projects is somewhat amorphous, outside the much-discussed Purple Line in suburban Washington, D.C., and Red Line in Baltimore. Combined, the two would cost more than $4 billion.

The proposed Corridor Cities Transitway, a more than $500 million bus rapid transit system that would link upper Montgomery County with the Washington Metrorail system, is also on the wish list of elected officials in suburban Washington.

Lawmakers whose residents would directly benefit from the transit projects have been more open to talking about a gas tax hike or devoting money collected from the sales tax to infrastructure.

For others, however, it’s unclear how raising taxes is going to benefit constituents. Because the elected leadership doesn’t articulate that benefit, Whelley says, the voters don’t campaign for it.

“Not only is it unclear to a lot of people what they’re actually going to get if they agree to a sales tax surcharge or even a gas tax, there has been very little in the way of communication and outreach,” Whelley said. “That kind of grassroots legwork and communication has really not happened.”

Part of that legwork involves the leadership from each of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions deciding on what transportation priorities exist within their bounds, and then effectively marketing those projects to residents. But local plans often fail to keep in mind that transportation infrastructure ought to be thought regionally, Whelley said.

“While there are regional plans on paper, there’s very little regional prioritization in terms of ‘what are your [top] priorities,’” she said. “Are Howard County and Prince George’s County and Anne Arundel County on the same page in terms of their priorities? … I can tell you that they’re not.”

Without that unified effort, Whelley said, voters are left to question a system that has already suggested such distrust is warranted. As the economy soured during the recession and state revenues fell, Maryland’s leaders pulled cash from the Transportation Trust Fund, supposedly a dedicated source of transportation money, to keep up spending in other areas. Most of that money has since been paid back — save for money for local highways — but the routine government exercise of taking money from one pot to subsidize the shortfall of another has eroded the public’s trust of these funds.

Whelley, like many transportation advocates, says any new revenue stream would have to be accompanied by some legislative change that would guarantee the money go toward transportation projects. That, combined with a clear schedule of tangible projects, could be the only way to get voters — and thus, reluctant lawmakers — on board. Some, she said, are already there; most are not.

“Transportation hasn’t been made relevant for the people who need to vote for the people who need to vote for a transportation revenue bill,” Whelley said. “Montgomery County’s there. They’ve been there for years. I mean, they’re going to secede from the state if they don’t get transportation funding, I’m convinced.”

So far this year, only Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, has proposed legislation that would raise an annual $700 to $800 million for new capital projects. Leadership in the House of Delegates is examining Miller’s bill and other proposals, as is Gov. Martin O’Malley and his staff.

Consensus may be difficult to come by, so Whelley says the state ought to start thinking about solutions to its transportation problems that are not wholly dependent on a huge new stack of money. Spending between $15 million and $20 million to increase the number of trains that run on the MARC line — which touches nine jurisdictions — could quickly reduce congestion on Maryland’s highways for a fraction of the cost of building a new highway or transit line. The trains currently don’t run from Baltimore to Washington in the middle of the day, or at all on weekends — an obvious opportunity, Whelley said.

“We really need to broaden the conversation beyond the capital projects. The operating needs, being able to fund some of the expansion of existing systems, is low-hanging fruit and can be done with significantly less dollars,” she said. “It can be done virtually immediately. If [the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Transit Administration] found the funding for weekend service, within six to nine months it’d be running.”

None of this — not operational changes and not the construction of new projects — appears likely, however, unless an organized, grassroots lobby of Marylanders fed up with some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion and least-accessible transit systems can influence state lawmakers.

If almost $100 million can be spent by corporate interests to campaign for and against the construction of a resort casino — as it was leading up to November’s election — why shouldn’t a similar campaign be launched by the businesses that could see their long-term success hindered by oppressive traffic?

“Look at the dollars that were spent on the campaign for gaming,” Whelley said. “If you put those dollars into campaigning for transportation and people could understand both sides of the issue, pro and con, about ‘here’s what’ll happen if we can get more money in the transportation trust fund,’ we might not succeed this year — but wouldn’t we sooner or later?”