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Federal funding shortage will hinder Baltimore transportation projects

The major challenge facing the Baltimore region's transportation infrastructure is the same confronting other major metro areas — federal funding.  (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz).

The major challenge facing the Baltimore region’s transportation infrastructure is the same confronting other major metro areas — federal funding. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz).

The major challenge facing the Baltimore region’s transportation infrastructure is the same confronting other major metro areas — federal funding.

As states and cities grapple with crumbling transportation infrastructure and demand for new public transit projects increases, federal transportation funds are dwindling. The nation’s Highway Trust Fund, which is funded through a federal gas tax, is heading toward insolvency, according to experts.

Meanwhile, Congress hasn’t been able to pass a long-term funding plan for the trust fund and has only been able to approve short term extensions for years. The latest short-term fix was approved in July, and another will be needed toward the end of October to continue paying for the country’s transportation projects if an agreement on long-term funding can’t be reached.

“We are reaching a crisis situation. One thing is clear:  Whatever the source, long-term, predictable funding for the federal program is needed so that states and local governments, working with the federal government, can maintain, rehabilitate, and expand our existing public transportation infrastructure which serves millions of Americans daily,” Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Don Fry said in his prepared remarks to the Greater Baltimore Committee’s transportation summit on Monday.

Jack Schenendorf, a former chief of staff on the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and now of counsel at Covington & Burling LLP, acknowledges tax and entitlement reform is a priority and a prerequisite to increased federal investment. But he insists increasing federal investment is also a priority and will require hiking the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993.

Schenendorf said that, “barring a miracle,” none of those changes will happen before the 2016 election. He also said that an increase in the federal gas tax would more than likely have to come as part of a larger legislative bargain, such as passing recommendations included in a deficit-reduction plan that emerged from a commission chaired by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, a former aide to Democratic President Bill Clinton.  The Simpson-Bowles plan includes cuts in entitlements but also supports an increase in the federal gas tax.

“I think the context that it’s most likely to happen is when Republicans and Democrats restore some cooperativeness between the two parties and work on tax reform and entitlement reform,” Schenendorf said.

He also argued groups like the GBC could play an increasingly important role in getting members of Congress to act on long-term funding for the Highway Trust Fund, simply by showing them the condition of many of the area’s roads and bridges.

“You’ve got to tell the story in a way that member, or that senator can understand. Which is to talk about their state, their city, their suburban area, and talk about real transportation issues being faced, and the real kinds of projects out there that could fix those,” Schenendorf said.

Tim Zink, a spokesman for Sen. Ben Cardin, said during his remarks to the GBC Maryland’s junior senator empathized with residents who commute. He said the senator pointed out that he travels from the Baltimore area to Washington, D.C., each day understands the frustration residents have with congestion.

Zink also said Cardin shared his frustration that Congress hasn’t been unable to pass a long-term funding plan for the Highway Trust Fund. He said the senator believes that approving a short-term continuing resolution instead of passing long-term funding is something that should make voters furious.

Correction: A previous version of this article had the incorrect day of the week the Greater Baltimore Committee’s transportation summit was held. The summit was held on Monday. We regret the error.


About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.