- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland legislators were warned Wednesday that upcoming Capitol Hill budget negotiations could result in less federal transportation money, which would force them to offset the losses through state-level cuts, layoffs or tax increases.

That message was delivered Wednesday to the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Federal Relations, whose members were told Maryland could soon be forced to make difficult decisions on how and whether they will fund certain road and transit projects.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to reauthorize and extend its funding for state roads and transit systems, with the Republican-controlled House considering a six-year, $230-billion extension that would cut current annual funding by about 35 percent.

“The road ahead is very unclear - as unclear as I have seen it,” said Jack Basso, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “Some very critical long-term decisions need to be made by Congress.”

Maryland officials have in recent months called for increased state funding to maintain aging infrastructure and pay for new road and transit projects, with a state commission even calling for $800 million in new funds.

The Maryland Transportation Authority is also considering increasing tolls to help fund maintenance of its toll facilities.

Additional funding could prove difficult to obtain as the federal and the Maryland highway trust funds - which depend heavily upon gas taxes and user fees - have been depleted in recent years because motorists have been driving less and using more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Congress is unlikely to raise the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax, considering that the House GOP recently refused to make tax increases part of a plan to raise the federal debt ceiling. Meanwhile, some Maryland officials are considering raising the state’s 23.5-cents-per-gallon rate.

Mr. Basso said federal legislators could consider other revenue generators, such as public-private partnerships, expanded toll systems or increasing funds taken from general funds. However, painful cuts are likely to come that could force states to delay or cancel projects and eliminate jobs associated with such projects.

Caitlin Hughes Rayman, assistant secretary of transportation policy for the Maryland Department of Transportation, warned that a 33 percent cut in federal funding could force the state to delay or cut more than $170 million in projects each year - eliminating 1,800 direct and indirect jobs.

She also said that if Congress fails to approve an extension by Sept. 30, it could cost the state as much as $65 million a month until an agreement is reached.

If Congress reduces its funding, some of the sharpest cuts could come to the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, which matches local funding for many major projects, including the Maryland Transit Administration’s proposed Baltimore-area Red Line rail route and Purple Line rail route from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

“This is not business as usual,” Miss Rayman said.

She also said the circumstances surrounding the future of transportation funding seem to change or worsen “every few months.”

While the current House proposal would bring significant cuts, Senate Democrats are pushing a two-year extension that would continue current funding levels of about $55 billion a year.

Maryland state Sen. Christopher B. Shank, Washington Republican, said state officials need to protect their own transportation funds and hopes to minimize the effect that potential federal cuts could have on projects.

He said he would oppose raising taxes to offset such cuts, but that the state could continue current funding levels by decreasing or eliminating the use of transportation funds for non-transportation purposes and focusing more on road improvements while looking for alternative ways to fund public transit.

“Folks in my district certainly use some amount of mass transit, but they’re concerned about roads,” Mr. Shank said. “Asking them to pay more in this time of economic uncertainty is not even something I can contemplate supporting.”

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