Friday, March 27, 2009

Pass the Garagiola Task Force Bill

Traditionally, sending an issue to a commission or task force is merely a convenient way to study it to death. As MPW contributor Marc Korman has written, many state commissions issue reports that “usually just gather dust and do nothing to fight chronic inaction on intractable issues.” Senate President Mike Miller asked his chamber to refrain from creating new commissions “during these times of fiscal austerity.” In general, both are right. But there is one gigantic exception to this rule: transportation.

The General Assembly’s recent record on transportation leaves a lot to be desired. Prior to the 2007 special session, Governor O’Malley recommended indexing the gas tax to fund transportation projects. Instead, the legislature increased the titling tax from 5% to 6% and devoted a portion of the sales tax and corporate income tax increases to the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), thereby raising a projected $400 million a year. Of that amount, $250 million was destined for system preservation and $150 million was intended for new projects. The latter figure roughly equals the cost of one interchange.

Soon enough, the new transportation revenues began to disappear. In 2008, Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18) floated a plan to cut $150 million from the annual increase as an alternative to the millionaire tax. Ultimately, the legislature chose to cut $50 million a year from transportation instead. At the same time, rising prices for construction materials steadily eroded the purchasing power of the extra revenues. By November, MDOT Secretary John Porcari said that the special session increase was only generating $265 million a year in new money – barely enough to cover extra system maintenance needs. By then, the shrinking economy had forced Porcari to cut Maryland’s six-year transportation spending plan by $1.1 billion with more cuts to come. The legislature’s reaction was to cut transportation aid to the counties, a move that would have pleased former Governor (and TTF raider) Bob Ehrlich. The situation has become so dire that the Montgomery County Council has decided to use county money to jumpstart state projects.

No state politician I talk to is satisfied with the current condition of transportation funding. Many admit privately that the state will have great difficulty in meeting its obligations for any of its three transit projects as well as the challenges of dealing with BRAC. But the vast majority of state politicians simply will not tolerate any tax increases for transportation. Delegate Bill Bronrott (D-16), whose constituents are about to be swamped by traffic from the Walter Reed BRAC expansion, introduced a bill to index gas taxes (as the Governor originally proposed). It attracted no co-sponsors and has not moved out of committee. Senator Madaleno’s bill increasing the gas tax by 5 cents has also attracted no co-sponsors and has not moved. The same fate has befallen Delegate Charles Barkley’s (D-39) bill raising the gas tax by 10 cents. Delegate Sheila Hixson’s (D-20) bill raising the gas tax by 5 cents drew two co-sponsors (District 16 Delegate Bill Frick and District 11 Delegate Jon Cardin) but has not moved in Ways and Means despite the fact that Hixson chairs the committee. And a Republican bill to suspend gas taxes for new vehicles has attracted more sponsors (five) than any of the increase bills.

Since the special session, the state’s political leadership has demonstrated no will, no strategy and no interest in meeting the transportation needs of its citizens. The reason for this is that while state politicians have correctly diagnosed voter resistance to new taxes, they do not perceive overwhelming support for new transportation spending. But that is a miscalculation. The business community has called for new transportation revenues over and over and over again. Building trades unions and contractor associations would celebrate the opportunity to go to work. Groups like Action Committee for Transit and Purple Line Now would embrace any opportunity to steer money to transit. And many ordinary voters are fed up with traffic congestion, a problem beyond the ability of county governments to fix by themselves. By bringing in stakeholders like these, the state can build political support and formulate a strategy for moving new projects forward.

And that is exactly what Senator Rob Garagiola (D-15) proposes to accomplish with his bill calling for the creation of a transportation infrastructure funding task force. The task force will be comprised of 15 individuals, including four state legislators, four Cabinet secretaries, a representative from WMATA and 6 individuals from the private sector who will examine revenues, public/private partnerships, economic development and infrastructure maintenance. Oregon started its new push on transportation with a similar task force. Their report has formed the basis for a strategic approach to dealing with the state’s problems that is now working its way through the legislature. There is no reason why Maryland cannot do the same.

Finally, there are significant political benefits for state leadership in creating the Garagiola Task Force. The measure will please business, labor and transportation advocates. Because the final report is not due until January 2011, it gives state politicians a way to park the issue until after the next election. Transportation stakeholders will provide lots of political cover for any solution based on the task force’s report. And all of this can be bought for a paltry cost of MDOT and DLS staff time.

Senate President Mike Miller has called for a new commission to examine the state song. What is more worthy of consideration: the state song or state transportation?