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Commission: Transportation Needs $800M More A Year

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland should raise $800 million more in annual transportation funding to shore up the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund, a commission recommended Monday.

The 28-member Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding also recommended amending the state’s constitution to prevent officials from directing money away from infrastructure needs to plug budget holes. Panel members said the change is needed both to protect the money and restore public faith that transportation revenue won’t be used for other purposes.

If a constitutional amendment isn’t approved, the panel advised lawmakers to change the law to make it difficult to redirect the money without a plan to repay it.

Although money shifted away from transportation often has been repaid over the years, the panel noted that nearly $1 billion has not been paid back — mostly in local aid for roads.

Maryland transportation funding has taken a big hit during the recession, as the state collected less money from sales, gasoline and vehicle titling taxes. Gov. Martin O’Malley, like previous governors, has used transportation funds to help address budget shortfalls.

O’Malley’s current budget proposal calls for shifting another $100 million away from transportation, with $60 million going to the state’s operating budget and $40 million to bolster the state’s rainy day fund.

The panel is calling on raising about $600 million in new revenue. That could be leveraged to provide another $200 million in annual bond sales.

On top of that, the commission recommended the state restore about $350 million annually that has been drained away from local aid for roads in recent years to fill in budget gaps.

The commission did not specify how new money should be raised. Instead, the panel made a variety of recommendations lawmakers could consider, such as raising the state’s gas tax, vehicle registration fees or tolls.

“We know that it’s going to take several of these items in terms of fees and taxes to reach the numbers that we need to rebuild the Transportation Trust Fund,” said Gus Bauman, the commission’s chairman.

Sen. Rob Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a member of the commission, is sponsoring legislation to increase the state’s gas tax by 10 cents. The tax, which has not been raised since 1992, is now 23.5 cents. The measure also calls for increasing vehicle registration fees by 50 percent. The bill includes the constitutional amendment to prevent spending transfers from transportation.

Garagiola said he believes this is the year to act.

“Each year we wait, the hole gets deeper and deeper to dig out of,” Garagiola said after the commission’s meeting. “Better to take action now rather than wait. We really can’t afford to wait.”

Maryland has a $40 billion backlog in a variety of planned, unfunded projects. A coalition of business leaders called the State Transportation Alliance to Restore the Trust also has been pushing to firm up commitment to transportation funding and a constitutional provision to protect it, as Washington-area commuters are regularly facing gridlock and military base expansions are expected to bring thousands more vehicles onto already congested roads.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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