The next governor of Maryland will have a direct and immediate impact on determining transportation priorities around the state, including expensive rail projects and restoration of aid to local governments for road repaving and construction.
For the two major candidates, Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Republican Larry Hogan, much of the debate over transportation comes down to the state gas tax, multibillion-dollar rail transportation projects and how to pay for local road projects.
Here is where the candidates stand on those issues based on interviews with Hogan and in the case of Brown, who did not respond to requests for interviews, statements made in previous interviews, debates and other public appearances.
A year ago, the General Assembly passed the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013 that included a phased-in, 20-cent increase on the state gas tax — the first such increase in 20 years—as well as annual automatic increases in the tax to keep pace with inflation.
For Brown, the increase is seen as necessary to improve state infrastructure as well as the state economy.
“We understand infrastructure doesn’t develop on its own, it doesn’t maintain itself,” Brown told officials gathered in Ocean City for the Maryland Association of Counties convention in August.
The comments echoed similar statements made by Brown in response to criticisms over the gas tax increase in which he said political opponents might need a lesson in economics.
“There are some people who want to lead this state who don’t want to make that infrastructure investment,” Brown said. “Anyone that thinks we can grow our economy without investing in transportation doesn’t know a whole lot about economic growth.”
For Brown, this investment comes in the form of an estimated 57,000 jobs from transportation projects — predominantly from the proposed Purple Line and Red Line rail projects.
Hogan opposes the gas tax but said that the use of revenue earmarked for transportation projects to fill budget gaps has necessitated the increase.
“We should have never been in that position,” said Hogan, adding that using the tax for public transit projects rather than roads doesn’t help the motorists who are paying the tax.
The Republican has said he would like to roll back as many of the 40 tax increases he attributes to the administration of Gov. Martin J. O’Malley and Brown, but he said eliminating the gas tax may not be possible.
Hogan said restoring funding for local highway projects and taking care of a backlog of other roads concerns make it difficult to eliminate the increase in the near future.
“The only way we’re going to get any of this fixed is with the revenue that will come in,” Hogan said.
But Hogan added that he would like to eliminate the automatic increases built into the tax.
“This is something that we’ll have to go to the legislature and convince them to do, and that will be hard,” Hogan said. “I can’t promise when it’s going to happen.”
Support for the lockbox
Along with passage of the gas tax in 3013, the General Assembly passed bills intended to create a so-called lockbox for the $4.4 billion in transportation funds that would be raised. The intent is to prevent state government from using the money raised from the gas tax to balance the budget, as has been done in years past, including under Govs. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and Martin J. O’Malley, a Democrat.
If passed by voters, the amendment to the state constitution would prohibit transferring money from the transportation trust fund to the general fund unless the governor declares a fiscal emergency and the transfer is approved by a three-fifths vote of the committees hearing the bill.
The amendment to the state constitution is the only ballot question before voters in November and may be the issue on which Brown and Hogan substantially agree. Both men expressed their support for the amendment during separate interviews in September with the Maryland Association of Realtors.
“I believe revenues that are raised, funds that are raised, ought to be spent for their intended purposes and you ought to have an emergency-type situation before you begin moving funds around,” Brown told the Realtor convention.
Brown compared dedicated state funds to his own household budget and the money he sets aside for car and educational and retirement expenses.
“I’ve got a lot of different funds, and I value them,” Brown said. “I do everything I can not to move funds out of one into other. It better be an emergency before I start taking money from my daughter’s college fund to pay for that car and it better be something like the car is totally broken, I have no other means of transportation and I otherwise wouldn’t be able to pay for her to go to college anyway.”
Hogan, speaking at the same event said he is “100 percent in favor” of the amendment.
During an interview, Hogan said he continues to support the passage of the amendment and repeated comments he made in September that the language doesn’t go far enough to ensure that money meant for transportation goes to those projects.
Purple Line, Red Line, No Line
The creation of the lockbox amendment comes at the same time that the state is looking to use the new gas tax revenue not for highway projects but for expensive new public transportation railway systems.
Much of that new revenue is expected to go to the $2.43 billion Purple Line rail project in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties and the $2.9 billion Red Line project that would run from east Baltimore to western Baltimore County.
Maryland is already deep into the process of securing as much as $900 million in federal funds for both lines as well as finding private partners who will partner with the state to construct and maintain the Purple Line in return for payments from the state over a 30- to 40-year period.
“In order to advance critical infrastructure priorities, we passed the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, which will generate an additional $4.4 billion to investment in needed transportation projects and create 57,000 jobs over the next six years; and the Public-Private Partnership Act, which will encourage private investment in new infrastructure, such as the Purple Line, and create thousands of new, well-paying middle class jobs,” Brown wrote in a statement on his website.
Hogan, on the other hand, said the projects are too expensive to consider with the backlog of roads projects around the state.
“We can’t afford it right now,” Hogan said.
Hogan said he would support providing money for design only.
“We’re not going to start construction at this point,” Hogan said of the projects. “They drain all the money out of the transportation trust fund. My priority is to get road construction on track.”
Money for local roads projects
Maryland’s transportation needs aren’t just limited to large rail and public transit projects.
Over the last five years, the state has reduced aid to counties for roads projects by more than $1 billion. Similarly, state aid to the state’s 157 incorporated cities and towns has been reduced by more than 90 percent.
The state’s roads have suffered as a result. According to a study by TRIP, a Washington D.C.-based transportation research group, 66 percent of Baltimore-area roads primarily maintained by the state or local government are in poor or mediocre condition. In the Washington, D.C., area, 62 percent of state and locally maintained roads are considered to be in poor or mediocre conditions.
That same report found that 25 percent of “Maryland bridges are in need of repair, improvement or replacement. Seven percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient, and 18 percent are functionally obsolete.”
Organizations that represent counties and incorporated towns have made restoring state aid a top priority.
Brown has said the additional revenue from the gas tax increase could help in restoring funding to county and municipal governments.
He told county and municipal officials at separate conventions in August and September that he supported developing a formula and phasing in a full restoration of the share to local governments.
“That’s an important responsibility, and we cannot each and every year come to Annapolis and discard the formula,” Brown said.
Hogan has vowed to immediately restore those funds to local government in his first budget after being sworn in.
“They’ve been crying out for this,” Hogan said. “This would have an immediate impact on road projects all over the state.”