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Senate seems willing to put stronger lock on transportation money

ANNAPOLIS — Some members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hinted on Tuesday that they could make it more difficult for the General Assembly to raid the Transportation Trust Fund.

A “lockbox” provision contained within a comprehensive plan to increase gas taxes and transit fares to pay for transportation projects in Maryland has been called weak by some lawmakers and advocacy groups, who are seeking to limit the legislature’s ability to shift revenue away from transportation, as it did during the recession.

Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen T. Snyder asked the powerful Senate panel during a three-hour hearing on Tuesday afternoon to strengthen the measure in House Bill 1515, which would require a supermajority — or three-fifths — of members in a Senate and House of Delegates committee to approve shifting transportation money to other projects or programs.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Democrat who represents traffic-choked Montgomery County, suggested that the panel could draft separate legislation in the form of a constitutional amendment, creating a lock that could not be so easily picked.

Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat and member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, suggested a similar solution last week, and Republicans in the legislature have been screaming for a lockbox for years.

Snyder said the chamber could get on board with a two-bill package that would offer businesses greater assurance that money raised through HB 1515 would indeed be spent on roads, highways, bridges and mass transit.

“We need to restore trust in the trust fund,” Snyder said. “We don’t want to hold up the process. This money is desperately needed.”

Such a bill would need to be drafted quickly. Less than two weeks remain in the legislature’s regular 90-day session, and any new legislation at this late date would have to clear several extra procedural hurdles.

Much of the public work on the transportation bill has been done quickly, however. The House passed the bill on Friday, just a week after the Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the proposal, reached in private meetings among Gov. Martin O’Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and staff.

The Senate panel’s public hearing began less than 24 hours after HB 1515 was introduced in the full Senate on Monday afternoon. Still, scores of supporters — mostly business and construction groups — and opponents — mostly advocates for retailers, gas stations and the truck and commuter bus industries — testified on Tuesday.

Some groups lauded the bill — despite tax increases that could make a gallon of gas cost an extra 4 cents this summer and up to 20 cents more than current prices within five years — because it would create jobs for highway construction workers.

But Republican members of the Budget and Taxation Committee repeatedly questioned those groups’ logic. Much of the money generated through the transportation bill would go toward the design, engineering and land acquisition phases of the mass transit Red Line in Baltimore, Purple Line in suburban Washington and Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County.

“You can’t sit there and guarantee it’s going to roads,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Republican who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties.

Sen. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, said transportation projects were focused on metropolitan areas of the state, not rural ones, despite needs in Maryland’s less-populated areas.

“Every time they bring up a project, it’s the Red Line and Purple Line,” Edwards said. “There are no road projects mentioned.”

As amended by the House, HB 1515 would raise $3.2 billion for transportation projects over the next six years. With that increased funding level, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s debt capacity would swell to potentially allow $4.4 billion in spending by fiscal year 2019.

By fiscal 2019, the state would be pulling in an extra $800 million a year for transportation projects, mostly through a phased-in wholesale tax on gasoline — which could reach as high as 5 percent — and an excise tax tied to inflation as calculated by the Consumer Price Index.

Though much of the money could be used for highways in the first several years of the bill, in the later years — as engineering and land acquisition for the Red Line and Purple Line ramp up — most of the infusion would be earmarked for mass transit. Rural lawmakers say that isn’t fair to their constituents, who won’t often — if ever — use those rail lines.

“It should have been a more broader-based approach,” Edwards said.