Monday, March 15, 2010

Baltimore on the Block

A recent Sun article indicates that the General Assembly is considering cuts to Baltimore’s highway aid from the state. We are not in the habit of defending aid to Baltimore, but we believe these legislators are barking up the wrong tree.

The state aid program under scrutiny is Highway User Revenues (HUR), which is a portion of the Transportation Trust Fund sent out to the counties and the City of Baltimore to pay for street maintenance and other transportation-related expenditures. The Governor’s original FY 2010 budget contained $480 million in HUR distributions, including $194 million for the City of Baltimore. But the General Assembly and the Board of Public Works both cut HUR sharply by transferring much of it to the general fund to plug deficits. (Ironically, the Democrats had once criticized former Governor Bob Ehrlich for “raiding” transportation spending.) Proposed HUR is now down to $140 million for FY 2010-2012, with Baltimore due to receive $130 million. General Assembly budget analysts are advocating that $30 million of that money go to other jurisdictions instead.

Why does Baltimore get so much HUR money? The reason is because the State Highway Administration (SHA) does not own or maintain any roads in city limits. In the rest of the state, nearly all of the arterials are maintained by SHA. In Montgomery County, SHA roads include Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike, US-29, Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue and even secondary streets like Piney Branch Road and Bradley Boulevard plus many, many more. SHA spends hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining its street network every year. The City of Baltimore gets none of that money. So if the city’s HUR proceeds are distributed elsewhere, city residents will have to pay for their own pothole repairs while other Marylanders will see their arterials kept up by the state. Even such a MoCo partisan as your author would hesitate to do that to Baltimore.

But that does not mean the city should go untouched. In fact, Baltimore is the beneficiary of three special deals that no other jurisdiction gets: the state has assumed responsibility for its community college, detention center and central booking facility. In FY 2011, those costs are projected to total $182 million.

There is absolutely no reason why every other jurisdiction should have to bear responsibility for its own community college and jail while Baltimore gets a free ride. The city should be treated the same way as everyone else. And since the state sends aid to subordinate jurisdictions on the basis of wealth formulas, the city would likely get a big chunk of its college and jail costs from the state anyway.

The General Assembly should treat all of Maryland fairly. That means letting Baltimore keep its street maintenance money but also ending its illegitimate freebies once and for all.