Josh Kurtz: Road to Nowhere

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It’s an exciting time in the world of Maryland transportation.

The vaunted, long-awaited Intercounty Connector opens today.

The proposed Red Line in Baltimore was recently granted fast-track status by the Obama administration, expediting the federal planning and permitting process.

In Montgomery County, they figure the proposed Purple Line is far enough along that folks are already starting to fight about where stations ought to be.

And even more good things appear to be in the offing: In Annapolis policymakers seem serious about discussing the first gas tax hike since the early 1990’s in the upcoming legislative session.

It’s a given that maintaining and updating our transportation and infrastructure is critical to the future of this state. And it’s well known that the transportation trust fund is badly in need of an infusion of cash. The gas tax, the fund’s primary source, has been too stagnant for too long, and the fund has often been raided through the years for other purposes.

A gas tax hike is something that most people -- even many business leaders who oppose tax increases as a general rule -- can agree upon, even if they differ over just how the money should be spent (roads vs. transit is a very basic divide).

So let’s join hands and sing “Kumbaya,” raise the gas tax, prevent highways from crumbling, seed exciting new transit lines and help launch a livable community or two. Sounds simple, right?

Except that nothing is simple. And some of the transportation news is quite bad. In Maryland, the gas tax debate is freighted with politics. And at the federal level, transportation funding is in danger of being eviscerated, and what passes for debate there is positively surreal.

Though the train wreck metaphor is unavoidable and you might want to avert your eyes, let’s talk about Capitol Hill first. The six-year transportation funding bill was supposed to have been reauthorized in 2009. But given the way things work in Washington -- or, more to the point, don’t work -- no one could reach a deal, and Congress has had to pass a series of stopgap funding measures ever since.

A few weeks ago, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, one of several Senate panels that have a say over transportation funding, came out with a proposal for a two-year transportation funding bill instead of a six-year bill, with all current funding levels kept intact -- indexed to inflation. This seemed significant at first, because the committee’s liberal chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and its ranking member, conservative Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who once famously declared that the concept of global warming was one of the greatest hoaxes in American history, agreed on the approach.

Problem was, neither senator came up with an idea for funding their plan. The federal transportation fund is also dangerously low because lawmakers have refused to raise the federal gas tax since 1993. Boxer and Inhofe kicked the responsibility for finding the additional $12 billion to fully fund their transportation package to the Senate Finance Committee, which is led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the man who drove (and some progressives would say hijacked and ruined) a good bit of the health care reform debate in 2009 and 2010.

Just last week, the House offered its response. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) released a five-year transportation plan. And to make up the necessary revenue, rather than raise the gas tax, Boehner and Mica rehashed Republican proposals for more oil and gas drilling -- in the Arctic, in the Gulf of Mexico and off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts -- and suggested using some of that income for transportation funding. This idea, which is also being passed off as the House GOP’s latest jobs package, has a very good chance of passing the House, where the drilling proposals have already been approved -- and zero chance of getting through the Senate.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate, in a rare display of productivity, last week agreed on a few spending bills for fiscal year 2012 (don’t get too excited -- the fiscal year, after all, began on Oct. 1). Several transportation and infrastructure programs took hits. Most significant and incredible: the annual spending program provided not one dime for high-speed rail. The U.S. already lags far behind its competitors in Asia and Europe when it comes to developing and operating high-speed rail. Now we will be even farther behind. How this is not a priority of congressional leaders is hard to fathom.

So if Maryland transportation planners and policymakers and business and civic leaders were looking for significant help from the federal government, they’ve got another think coming. They will have to keep this in the back of their minds as they begin to debate the proposed 15-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike that a committee appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) recently recommended -- and ponder where to use any extra revenues.

It appears unlikely that legislative leaders will swallow the full 15 cents. A dime-a-gallon increase seems more palatable to jittery pols. That’s in line with what state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola (D), the leading Annapolis advocate of a gas tax hike, has been pushing all along.

Of course, Sen. Garagiola is now also Candidate Garagiola, bidding for the hearts and minds of voters in the newly drawn Western Maryland Congressional district. To his credit, he has not backed away from his push for a state gas tax increase. But he is now telling voters that he does not favor an increase in the federal gas tax.

The 2014 Democratic candidates for governor are also starting to line up on the gas tax question. Not surprisingly, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is advocating strongly for it. So is Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, in his guise as president of the Maryland Association of Counties. If the tax increase passes, Brown will own it politically in 2014 -- for better or worse.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot is now Mr. Hold the Line on Taxes, so of course he’s against it. The good citizens of east Baltimore County will be thanking him when the Key Bridge plunges into the sea. And Attorney General Doug Gansler, who cheerily offers his opinion on many things, continues to maintain his silence on fiscal matters.

Even with O’Malley’s muscle finally behind it, there is no guarantee that a gas tax proposal is actually going to pass next year. Couple that with the federal dysfunction, and the road ahead for transportation policy, distressingly, is very, very difficult to see.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Why Glenn Ivey Will Win — And Why He Won’t

Around the Horn: Maryland Register, IRV, Uly Currie

Oh Donna (and Valerie)

Bartlett Pared

Van Hollen’s Lament

P.G. Law

Race and Races

The Company He Keeps
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.