Leadership is Contagious: VA and MD Finally Step up to the Plate on Transportation Funding

March 25, 2013
By The 2030 Group

After decades of frustration over the chronic lack of focus and attention by area elected officials on the single biggest threat to our region’s economic future – our catastrophic failure to invest in transportation infrastructure – how quickly things have changed!

First, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell pushed through a record package of dedicated transportation funding inVirginia, providing roughly $3.4 billion in new investment over the next five years.  Virginia had come close many times before, and has been able to leverage significant private-sector funds in its recent Beltway expansion project, but a more comprehensive funding plan remained out of reach until this year.

That’s all it took, apparently, to break the decades-long logjam in the Maryland General Assembly.  Within weeks ofVirginia’s action, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, and House Speaker Michael Busch put together a funding package similar in scope that has the momentum to pass this year. Virginia’s wake-up call had an immediate impact, transforming a legislative session inAnnapolisthat was going nowhere into the most promising atmosphere in a generation for transportation advocates.  We may now be at the point where legislators are ready to move from kicking the can down the road to taking action to make sure there still IS a road.

Maybe it was the competitive pressure from Northern Virginia andMarylandlegislators’ justified fear of losing major employers to a neighboring jurisdiction that is investing in its infrastructure. Or perhaps it was the realization that, in the face of a looming crisis, leaders have a responsibility to lead. Either way, the result is extremely encouraging for our region.

Leadership is contagious.

The results could be dramatic.  Depending on the final shape of Maryland’s new plan, the level of additional funding will likely be enough to move forward in the near term on several critical projects of regional significance:  The long-stalled Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton; the Corridor Cities Transitway linking key activity centers with a high-quality bus-rapid-transit line along the critical I-270 technology corridor; major new road and intersection improvements in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties; and more.

None of these priority projects can move forward without the legislation, and the economic stakes are enormous.

More than 40,000 new construction jobs will be created right off the bat, and that is only the beginning, as millions in private sector investment hangs in the balance and will only happen when these projects move forward.  This may be the single most effective way imaginable to counter the negative effects of the federal government sequester on our region’s economy.

Maryland’s plan for financing these improvements, as reflected in the House version of the bill (HB1515), differs significantly fromVirginia’s funding model.  It retains the current 23.5 cent gas tax and indexes it to inflation, while adding a gradually increasing wholesale-level sales tax on gasoline sales, starting with a 1% boost in July, gradually increasing to 3% by July 2015, and eventually as much as 5% (depending on Congressional action on a national internet sales tax, a portion of which Maryland would dedicate to transportation under this legislation).  Additional changes may be made as the bill nears final passage, including possible additional revenues and strengthening the “lock-box” language intended to protect the Transportation Trust Fund from future raids, changes for which area business leaders should continue to press.

With House passage last week,Maryland’s transportation funding bill needs only the approval of the State Senate, where Senate President Miller has been a stalwart supporter of increased investment in transportation infrastructure for many years, and where chances of passage for this historic measure are good.  Governor O’Malley has already signaled his willingness to sign the measure into law, as it closely resembles the plan he and other state leaders put forward just a few short weeks ago.

The bottom line is that, for the first time in over a decade, transportation advocates inMarylandare now feeling a sense of optimism.  If so, with new long-term funding sources identified on both sides of the Potomac, the time to begin aggressively making plans and “thinking big” about major projects that could have a game-changing effect at the regional level may be here at last.

The 2030 Group and others at the regional level have already begun the process of engaging experts in various fields to identify potentially game-changing projects that would do the most to improve the performance of our regional transportation network.  With new revenues now likely to be available for the first time in recent memory, those efforts take on new urgency.  The discussion will soon shift from the static “there is no money” discussion we’ve been having to a far more interesting and productive “how can we best invest the money we have to do the most good” discussion.

This may well be the turning point, so let’s start that critical discussion now.