ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) In his first year in office, Gov. Martin O’Malley successfully pushed for a major increase in transportation funding, despite facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion.
But for all his resolve at the time to continue to invest in transportation, the Democratic governor’s budget-balancing maneuvers during the recession have taken a toll on transportation funding in traffic-clogged Maryland.
Now, state business leaders are calling for an end to spending transfers from the Transportation Trust Fund to fill budget holes in other areas.
“It’s been tough over the past 20 years that, during tough budget times, the Transportation Trust Fund has appeared to be a cookie jar for governors from both parties to borrow money to help pay for operating expenses,” said Kathleen Snyder, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are calling for new transportation money to help ease a $40 billion backlog in a variety of planned, unfunded projects and for a constitutional amendment to protect transportation funding from being redirected.
A Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding is scheduled to make recommendations to the governor and lawmakers.
After he was first elected governor in 2006, O’Malley, a Democrat, stressed that transportation was a top priority.
“We are not going to be the first generation that allows our infrastructure to become weak because we haven’t the ability to make our political will strong,” O’Malley said at a conference of local officials in August 2007. He noted the consequences of inaction by citing a deadly bridge collapse that summer in Minnesota.
That same year, he pushed through $1.4 billion in tax increases, partly to fund transportation, in a special session. But then the recession hit.
While major transportation funding sources such as sales, gasoline and vehicle titling taxes contracted, O’Malley used transportation funds to help address budget shortfalls. In his spending plan for next year, the Democrat recommended shifting $100 million from the Transportation Trust Fund to help close a projected $1.4 billion budget gap.
O’Malley is hardly the first governor to tap transportation money during tough times. But rising debt and the size of spending transfers from transportation to other purposes have brought criticism from business leaders frustrated by the backlog of road and transit projects. State aid to local governments for road repairs also has been nearly wiped out. Meanwhile, Maryland has made record investments in education while freezing college tuition.
Not that all major projects have been put on hold. Crews have been moving ahead under O’Malley on the Inter-County Connector, an 18-mi., controlled-access highway in Maryland’s Washington suburbs.
But with Washington-area commuters routinely facing gridlock and military base expansions expected to pour thousands more vehicles onto roads in coming years, business leaders say it’s time for the state to stop raiding transportation funds.
A statewide coalition of business leaders has formed the State Transportation Alliance to Restore the Trust, a name that plays on the mistrust that’s built up over the years because of transportation fund diversions.
Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery, backs a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the governor from diverting money intended for roads and bridges. Garagiola believes the amendment, which would go before voters in 2012, is critical to raising support for increases in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
But Beverley Swaim-Staley, O’Malley’s transportation secretary, said state officials need to have the option of redirecting funds during difficult economic times.
“It’s very important to have the flexibility that you need to make sure that you’re addressing all of the state’s priorities,” she said during a political summit at the University of Maryland, College Park.
In his State of the State speech Feb 3, O’Malley noted Maryland is moving ahead with light rail projects in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, but that those projects depend on federal funding for at least half the cost.
Del. Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, noted a lack of transportation details in the speech.
“He talked about bridges and roads, and in reality, he’s raided all the funding for those projects, so his words didn’t necessarily match his actions,” O’Donnell said.
Garagiola wants to raise between $400 million and $600 million more each year for transportation.
“We barely have enough money for system preservation,” Garagiola said in a recent interview.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, also has expressed support for a gas tax increase. And other senators see reasons to raise the state’s tax of 23.5 cents per gallon for the first time since 1992.
“In terms of the hierarchy of revenue raisers and what might be right, based on how long we’ve gone without raising them, I think the gas tax — or some kind of gas tax to help us fund our transportation projects — is probably the most popular, probably the most ripe,” said Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, questioned whether now is the time to raise the gas tax, when pump prices are more than $3 a gallon. But he acknowledged the transportation funding problem presented by the loss of the state highway user money for local governments.
Busch said at the College Park forum: “Many county governments are going to have to look to other alternatives for their transportation revenues, so our transportation system is somewhat at risk.”