Transportation funding panel wants 2011 action
A commission studying how to bolster Maryland's anemic fund for transportation has reached an apparent consensus to recommend that the General Assembly take action to raise hundreds of millions for such projects this year.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding plans to hold a special meeting Jan. 24 to decide on how much money it will urge legislators to raise to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund. Members of the panel discussed sums ranging from $300 million to $650 million a year -- an amount that would likely require an increase in the state's gasoline tax.
Sen. Rob Garagiola,a Montgomery County Democrat who is a member of the commission, said the panel believes Maryland is under pressure from other states that are moving to shore up their transportation funding in anticipation of an improved economy.
"It seems like the commission has not kicked the can down the road and put the focus on a revenue package for the 2011 General Assembly," Garagiola said.
The hopes of panel members to find more money for roads, bridges, transit and other projects has been complicated by a proposal gaining traction in the General Assembly to divert some of the sales tax money now slated to go to the Transportation Trust fund to close the general fund budget shortfall by an estimated $200 million a year.
Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said it would take a 7-cent increase in the gas tax simply to make up for the money lost to the trust fund in sales tax revenue. That would mean a 10-cent increase supported by some transportation advocates would yield only a net gain of a little more than $100 million for transportation -- a fraction of the state's identified needs. Swaim-Staley questioned whether the 20-cent gas tax increase needed to raise $650 million would be politically feasible.
The panel's recommendation could counter inclinations by some legislators to defer the transportation funding issue to 2012 while it grapples with the general fund shortfall. The panel is not expected to present final recommendations until late 2011. However, the commission's concerns about transportation could be overshadowed by the desire of some General Assembly fiscal leaders to use the gas tax to close the general budget shortfall.
Gus Bauman, a Washington-based transportation and land use lawyer who chairs the panel, said there was also consensus on the commission to call for a "firewall" around transportation revenue to keep it from being diverted to the general fund -- as the General Assembly and governors often do when the state runs into tight budget times.
Bauman acknowledged that past proposals to create a "firewall" as a constitutional amendment had repeatedly failed. He suggested there might be a statutory way to require a super-majority to tap into the trust fund.
But Garagiola said the legislature would "probably not" be able to erect an enforceable super-majority firewall without an amendment.
The senator said he would prefer not to tap the sales tax for general fund purposes. But he said it is important to act on any transportation revenue increases because expected toll increases this year could sap the Assembly's political will to deal with other transportation needs.