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Business leaders make case for transportation funding

Left to right: Jim Dinegar, Mark Coles and Donald C. Fry talk about the business impact of increasing transportation funding. (Alexander Pyles/The Daily Record)

It is critical that the General Assembly rally around legislation developed by the governor and presiding officers that would raise $800 million a year for transportation projects, business leaders said Friday.

The House of DelegatesWays and Means Committee will hold a hearing on the transportation bill, H.B. 1515, Wednesday afternoon.

In a morning press conference outside the State House, business advocates from the Baltimore and Washington areas said raising the money was vital to Maryland’s economy.

“Nothing is more important as it relates to keeping business going,” said Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. He said growth at the Port of Baltimore, establishment of a liquified natural gas export facility in Calvert County and expansion of U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade were significant.

“All of this is going to put added pressure, added demands, on roads,” he said.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said many business organizations have lobbied for a gas tax increase to pay for transportation projects for the last 10 years. The last gas tax hike was in 1992, and no new construction projects are on the books. The state’s Transportation Trust Fund will only have enough money to maintain existing roads and highways by mid-2017.

“We’re quite honestly reaching the end of the line,” Fry said. “A lack of attention to Maryland’s transportation infrastructure shows.”

One way it’s shown is congestion, Fry said, which contributes to advocates’ estimate that the average Baltimore commuter loses $1,781 a year on roads. It’s worse for Washington-area drivers, who waste $2,195 a year.

Beverly Pannee, vice president of RJM Engineering in Ellicott City, said congestion was a major factor when RJM was trying to decide where to locate. Long commute times have a significant negative impact on employee productivity, she said.

Meanwhile, construction trades are still trying to recover from job losses suffered during the Recession. James A. Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, said some of the companies he represents have laid off 50 percent of their employees. New money for transportation projects could alleviate some of that unemployment.

Repeating a familiar refrain, Fry said transportation funding was a crisis in Maryland. Lawmakers’ actions to address the crisis, Fry said, will have a significant impact on the state’s future economic development and quality of life.