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Local governments face uphill battle on highway funds

ANNAPOLIS — The chairman of a task force charged with finding ways to fund local highway projects urged lawmakers Tuesday to vote against restoring severe funding cuts made to local governments, saying doing so would make life even more difficult for the state.

Matthew D. Gallagher, president and chief executive officer of the Goldseker Foundation and chairman of the Local and Regional Transportation Funding Task Force told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee that the state’s Transportation Trust Fund was still “in distress” despite a gas tax increase passed last year.

Additional costs related to federal stormwater management mandates and larger regional transportation projects will require much of the more than $4 billion that the new tax is expected to generate, said Gallagher, who served four years as chief of staff to Gov. Martin J. O’Malley.

“It could impact the borrowing ability” of the Maryland Department of Transportation, Gallagher said. “This is not a strategy that would be endorsed by the task force.”

The committee is considering Senate Bill 664, a measure that would seek to restore about two-thirds of state aid to local roads projects that the General Assembly has cut since 2009.

Before that year, the state split highway user revenue 70-30 with local counties and municipalities. But budgetary issues in the wake of the recession forced O’Malley and legislators to cut about 90 percent of that funding.

Wilson H. Parran, deputy director of administration and operations for the Department of Transportation, said state officials realize the dire circumstances local governments are in. He said the task force was created to find solutions to resolve these issues.

“We realize we had to come up with alternate sources to fund transportation going forward,” Parran said. “We realize we need to continue to work on this.”

Sens. George C. Edwards, R-Western Maryland, and Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery, are sponsoring a bill that would phase in a partial restoration, increasing the split over three years, with local governments receiving 20 percent. Both Edwards and Madaleno served on the task force with Gallagher.

Edwards said the idea is to provide relief to local governments that are seeing their own roads suffer in the wake of cuts to state aid.

“This is something we need to figure out,” Edwards said.

Officials from a number of local governments said the cuts to highway funds are starting to hurt.

“We’re asking to get back in the game and have a reasonable level of funding restored,” said Wicomico County Executive Richard M. “Rick” Pollitt Jr., a Democrat and member of the regional transportation task force.

Pollitt said his county will pay “100 percent more” to fill potholes because of the colder-than-normal winter.

Allegany County Commissioner William R. “Bill” Valentine said his county can no longer afford to use blacktop on roads.

Allegany County saw its share of state aid decrease from $4 million to $400,000 annually to maintain about 600 miles of road.

“This is not about maintaining roads,” Valentine said. “It’s about maintaining safety for the residents of our county. These are the roads our school buses travel.”

Takoma Park Councilman Seth Grimes, a Democrat, said his city is supporting the bill to restore state aid to local governments and asked that it be amended to restore aid also to 159 incorporated municipalities in the state.

Takoma Park has seen its state aid cut from $508,000 to $60,000.

Grimes also said his city is supporting SB 629, sponsored by Madaleno, that would allow local and municipal governments to tack up to $40 every two years on the state’s vehicle registration fee. The creation of that fee was a recommendation of the local transportation funding task force.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard and Baltimore County, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, expressed concern for local jurisdictions, while at the same time saying that legislators and the governor were responsible for the deep cuts that were made over the last five years.

“I don’t mind reasonable cuts but many of these counties and towns can’t do it,” Kasemeyer said.

He told Gallagher and state transportation officials that something needed to be done even if it wasn’t a full restoration of state aid.