Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why Baltimore Should Support I-270 Widening

Baltimore Guy (and Sun reporter) Mike Dresser feels cranky about the I-270 widening proposal. Well, we have news for you, Baltimore – the I-270 project may be a better deal for you than for us!

First of all, we can see where Baltimore Guy is coming from. The view around the state is that MoCo bullied its way into getting one giant road project – the ICC – and now we want to bully our way to getting another giant project to widen I-270. The problem with that view is that it gives us too much credit. The history of the ICC does not showcase MoCo’s ambition, but rather its schizophrenia when it comes to big road projects. Longtime County Executive Doug Duncan supported the ICC, but our County Council voted to oppose it by 6-2 in April 1999, 5-3 in March 2002 and 5-3 in July 2002. In 1999, the Council tried to rezone ICC-intended property as parkland, provoking a confrontation with the General Assembly. After the 2002 election, the Council voted 6-3 in favor of the ICC in December 2002 and 6-3 in favor in March 2005. The road finally began construction under Governor Bob Ehrlich, a Republican whom MoCo voted against twice. The County Council’s newest member, Nancy Navarro, won a tight special election in part because she opposed the ICC and ran against a pro-ICC state legislator. Does all of the above really lead you to believe that MoCo waged a relentless campaign to get the ICC?

The proponents of the I-270 project say it’s about creating jobs, jobs, jobs. Let’s look at that argument. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, MoCo had more jobs than any other jurisdiction in Maryland in 2008. But that’s not all – MoCo’s jobs pay 23% better than the state average. And since MoCo’s income tax is a flat 3.2% and the state has had a progressive income tax since 2007, the state is the real beneficiary of those high-paying jobs.

Now let’s find out who is paying the state’s bills. In FY 2007, MoCo paid $1.6 billion in income taxes and $453 million in sales taxes to the state government for a combined total of $2.1 billion. Baltimore City paid $342 million in income taxes and $287 million in sales taxes for a combined total of $629 million – less than one-third of MoCo’s payout.

What happens when the money gets to Annapolis? Much of it comes back out in the form of state aid, but it doesn’t come out evenly. The aid formulas are largely driven by property values. Let’s set aside the fact that high property values mostly mean unaffordable mortgages for residents like your author – MoCo is supposed to be rich, right? So “rich” counties get less and “poor” counties get more. Here’s how that works out in the Governor’s most recent budget proposal:

Baltimore City residents would have received $1,879 per capita in aid next year under the Governor’s proposal. MoCo residents would receive $768. If William Donald Schaefer and an army of Pratt Street accountants dreamed up a state aid system, it could hardly be more generous to Baltimore than the one we have now!

But wait, it gets better. The state gives three times as much school aid per pupil to Baltimore as it does to MoCo.

And the state has completely assumed funding responsibility for Baltimore’s Community College, Detention Center and Central Booking Facility.

And Baltimore Guy is complaining about anything we get?

All of the above points to a cardinal truth: every job created in MoCo because of the I-270 project means more state aid for the City of Baltimore. And Baltimore can roll up that cash without having to deal with all the extra traffic that will impact us if the project is built. Traffic is a huge issue here – 58% of our residents picked it is as our top long-term challenge in a recent Council of Governments poll. It is the primary reason that we sometimes vote politicians out of office for letting in too many jobs. Yeah, we’re funny that way. And we still think we’re smarter than everyone else!

So do you really want to help us, Baltimore? Forget about I-270. Just loosen your development regulations, build a giant superhighway and double your population and employment. Then send a big chunk of those extra tax revenues to the state so they can pay for the majority of our school budget and take over funding responsibility for huge swaths of our local government.

What did you say? You don’t like the sound of that?

Hey, it worked for MoCo, right?