Thursday, October 15, 2009

Warning Signs for Transportation, Part One

By Marc Korman.

On both the policy and political fronts, efforts to address transportation woes in our region are under siege.

In August, Governor O’Malley and the Board of Public Works cut $159.5 million from the Highway Users Fund, including $13.6 million designated for Montgomery County. That chopped in half the total fund and 90% of the money designated for Montgomery County. The Highway Users Fund is money collected in the state transportation trust fund from gasoline and titling taxes that is distributed to local government. In 2002, the Highway Users Fund distributed $440 million to local governments. This year it will distribute just $150 million.

Metro is reporting a new $22.4 million budget deficit due to the summer’s decline in ridership and the resulting loss of fares. Of course, common sense tells us that the drop in ridership was largely due to the accident on the Red Line. The accident probably scared some people away, but inept post-accident traffic management by Metro also contributed to the decline. Ridership likely recovered in September, but Metro will still need to find a way to bridge the budget gap.

A recent Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll asked Marylanders about five different potential budget cuts to deal with the budget deficit. Although none received majority support, transportation fared the worst with just 51% of voters opposing cuts. That is compared with 56% opposing environmental cuts, 67% opposing higher education cuts, 80% opposing K-12 education cuts, and 70% opposing cuts to services for the poor.

Across the river in Virginia, Creigh Deeds has finally returned to a position he held before running for Governor, embracing the idea of a gas tax increase. The idea should have some appeal in Northern Virginia, where chronic transportation problems can only be dealt with if there is increased revenue. Unfortunately, the latest polls show Deeds trailing his Republican opponent. Should he lose, we can assume that politicians will go to their default position of assuming a tax revolt has occurred.

Of course, the news is not all bad. In Part Two we will take a look at some of the good news on the transportation front.