Monday, November 24, 2008

Crisis in Transportation, Part One

Last week was a tough one for Maryland transportation advocates. Let us count the ways.

1. The message from MDOT Secretary John Porcari’s Road Show presentation in Rockville was a gloomy one. After revealing that the state only had three road projects in the entire county under construction, the Secretary told legislators upset over lack of progress on BRAC work, “We know we have to live within our means.” Translation: we have no more money to spend.

2. Even though the state just cut $1.1 billion from its $10.5 billion six-year transportation plan, the Post reported that revenue shortfalls could force more cuts totaling $2.5 billion. According to the Post:

Collections of the vehicle titling tax in Maryland -- the equivalent of a sales tax on cars -- were down 17.8 percent from July to October compared with the same period a year ago, according to transportation officials. Revenue from the gas tax was down 6.6 percent from July to September compared with that period...

“Cars sales are poor, and people aren't driving,” said Warren Descheneaux, chief fiscal analyst for the Maryland legislature. “This is going on everywhere.”

The forecast Descheneaux presented to legislators yesterday assumes that Maryland will collect about $1 billion less than expected in titling taxes in the next six years. Gas taxes and other revenue sources that benefit transportation are also expected to be more sluggish than predicted. Maryland's ability to sell bonds for transportation projects is likely to be reduced by $1.2 billion, according to the forecast.
Secretary Porcari was skeptical that more cuts of that magnitude were necessary. But Delegate Murray Levy (D-28), Vice-Chair of the Transportation and Environment Subcommittee, said, “ I think we're going to get to the point where, if it hasn't been started, it may not get built... It's like one dollar out of three has gone out the door. That's not a trim around the edges. You have to whack projects.”

3. Two of our county’s leading state legislators poured cold water on the notion that additional revenues will be raised for transportation. When the Post asked House Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D-17) about prospects for a gas tax increase, he replied, “I don't think people want us to be doing that right now.”

New Montgomery Senate Delegation Chairman Rich Madaleno (D-18) went further. In his statement on the Purple Line, read by an aide at last week’s hearing in Chevy Chase, Senator Madaleno said:

It is no secret that our state, like every other, is facing a severe economic downturn from the global financial crisis. With the end of this crisis nowhere in sight, our state will have to make some very serious decisions on our transportation priorities. Our transportation infrastructure across the state requires serious attention and dwindling gas tax and titling tax revenues, combined with this economic downturn, will severely restrict our spending on many worthwhile projects.

Quite frankly, the state does not have the resources to pay for any of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT) options. Over the past decade, the only major new construction projects the state has moved forward with have been funded primarily with toll-backed revenue bonds. There are no alternative funding mechanisms available for this project. As a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, I feel confident in reporting that no new revenue options appear politically feasible in the foreseeable future.
House Majority Leader Barve and Senator Madaleno are two of Montgomery County’s highest-ranking representatives in Annapolis. If they believe that no new revenues are available for transportation, that is a serious problem.

But Maryland is not the only state with economic, budget and transportation headaches. In Part Two, we will reveal how another state is dealing with those same issues.