Donald Fry: Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

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By Donald C. Fry

The House Appropriations Committee has removed two troubling provisions from the General Assembly’s FY 2011 budget legislation that would further deplete the state's transportation funding and would significantly delay progress toward funding three key transit projects in Baltimore City and Montgomery counties.

The amended version of the budget reconciliation bill sent to the House floor on March 30 by the Appropriations Committee deletes a Senate provision that would permanently reduce the share of state sales tax revenue that would go to Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund.

The Senate provision would permanently cap the Transportation Trust Fund’s share of sales tax revenue at the current level of 5.3 percent instead of allowing it to increase to 6.5 percent, as it is scheduled to do in 2014. Making this cap permanent would rob the Transportation Trust Fund of $60 million annually, further depleting the fund and aggravating an already serious transportation financing crisis.

Currently, the state faces an estimated $80 billion backlog of highway, transit, port and airport projects that are planned but not funded for construction.

Seeking to strengthen transportation funding, lawmakers passed a measure during the 2007 special session that earmarked 6.5 percent of sales tax revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund. The fund has yet to benefit from that full allocation because only months later, during the 2008 session, the General Assembly reduced the amount to 5.3 percent until FY 2014. That action was to make up for revenue lost by repealing the computer services tax.

The Senate provision would continue a bad habit that lawmakers have acquired in raiding the transportation fund at least a dozen times in the last 26 years in order to shift money into the state’s general operating fund.

A perplexing irony is that transferring Transportation Trust Fund revenue to the general fund takes money from a transportation resource that has experienced only a 3.2 percent average revenue growth since 2000 and gives it to a fund that has enjoyed twice that rate of revenue growth.

Meanwhile, the Appropriations Committee also deleted Senate budget language that would require the Maryland Transit Administration to perform a full study of heavy rail alternatives for Baltimore’s planned east-west light rail Red Line as well as two transit projects proposed for Montgomery County – the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway.

This budget language clearly aims to delay and potentially derail the completion of these transit projects that are now under consideration for funding by the Federal Railroad Administration. Countless studies, reviews and reports on all potential options have already been conducted. An additional study of alternatives is not necessary and would only serve to remove these projects from federal consideration.

These vital transit projects are poised to move forward. It is critically important that Maryland lawmakers ensure that they do, rather than create our own roadblocks.

The differences in the budget bills will likely be resolved in conference committee this weekend. These three key transit projects and Maryland’s transportation funding resources would be far better served if conference committee participants adopt the House positions on these two important transportation issues.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid -- a bad habit continues

Where's the outrage over crime?

Small business is where innovation lives
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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.