Thursday, March 19, 2009

What the Montgomery County Delegation Can Do on Transportation Funding

By Lisa Fadden, Vice President for Public Affairs, Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

There aren’t many issues that all 32 Senators and Delegates in the Montgomery County Delegation can agree upon. Better yet, there are even fewer issues that both the Montgomery and Prince George’s Delegation can agree on. Ironically, the one issue that falls into that category – the issue with near unanimous support - is also one that has had no solution for decades – transportation funding.

This session – amidst budget cuts and ugly revenue estimates, there actually are some opportunities for the Montgomery County Delegation to have an impact, albeit small, on the issue of transportation funding.

Problem 1: Plummeting Revenues

Revenues in the transportation trust fund have plummeted rapidly, even more so than revenues in the general fund. The Maryland Department of Transportation has cut over $2 billion in revenues to projects over the past six months. These cuts have meant delays or deferrals of projects critical to Montgomery County, including the Georgia Avenue/Randolph Rd. interchange, the County’s top highway priority for years, along with cuts to the State commitment to both the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway.

Problem 2: An Unsustainable Trust Fund

Our model of funding transportation at the State level in Maryland is totally unsustainable. The Trust Fund’s top source of funding still remains the gas tax, in addition to the titling tax and driver registration fees. The gas tax has not been raised since the early 90’s, and has not even been indexed to the rate of inflation in those nearly two decades.

While we applaud efforts to encourage transit oriented development and believe it is imperative that the automakers design more fuel efficient cars, this has already had an impact on gas tax revenues, an impact that will grow staggering over the coming decades. If we don’t find alternate methods of funding transportation, the infrastructure hole that we have dug ourselves into will only continue to grow larger, until we literally cannot dig ourselves out of it.

Problem 3: Vulnerability from the General Fund

In these difficult times, the Transportation Trust Fund has a huge target on its back. In thirty years, the trust fund has been raided ten times in order to fill budget gaps in the general fund. While it was the right thing to do for the General Assembly to place sales tax revenues in the Trust Fund during the special session, these revenues are particularly vulnerable given the historic perspective of these revenues as General Fund revenues.

The bottom line: If we cannot demonstrate to the Federal government in the next few years that we have enough revenue in the Transportation Trust Fund to pay for our State share of our Federal New Starts projects, the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway, these projects have no chance of survival – and we only get one shot at it.

Some solutions:

TTF Protection BillHouse Bill 140, sponsored by Delegate Brian Feldman (D-15), would protect the Trust Fund from being raided by the general fund for the purposes of filling general fund deficits. The bill requires that before the governor removes money from the trust fund, he must have the approval of the legislature, and must demonstrate a repayment plan. This is a very modest proposal to protect the trust fund.

Transportation Infrastructure Task Force BillSenate Bill 853, sponsored by Senator Rob Garagiola (D-15), would establish a commission to report back to the General Assembly in January of 2011 that would identify the most appropriate sources of revenue to fund the future of the trust fund. While many people shrug or sigh at the idea of another task force, this bill would take into account climate change and environmental factors that are much more prevalent in our reality today than they were even five years ago. In addition, this task force could serve as a vehicle for the movement of a revenue bill during the 2011 session, safely after the 2010 election.

NOTE: While there are many gas tax increase and inflationary adjustment bills that merit passage, I don’t mention them here given that they are highly unlikely to pass this session.

Traffic relief still remains amongst the top two issues for voters. If the Montgomery County Delegation could unite on the two bills above, and unite with their colleagues around the State, we could take a modest step towards ensuring the future of the transportation trust fund.