- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

ANNAPOLIS (AP) - The Ehrlich administration is considering selling such state assets as the World Trade Center at the Inner Harbor and land at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport to replenish a transportation fund that will be raided to help balance the state budget.

Budget Secretary James C. DiPaula Jr. said Tuesday that disposing of state-owned property could generate cash for roads, rail lines and other transportation initiatives.

The $315 million transfer from the transportation trust fund was contained in the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act of 2003, one of about 150 pieces of legislation approved Tuesday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during the third of four scheduled bill-signing ceremonies.

State officials had spoken of increasing the tax on gasoline or using a fraction of the state’s sales tax for transportation projects. But Mr. DiPaula indicated that other options might be preferable.

“It’s an idea that is worth considering,” said Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick, referring to the potential sale of the state-owned airport, the 24th-busiest in the nation, with 19 million passengers annually. “It’s bold. There’s lots of creative ideas being floated. This is one of them.”

The budget-balancing legislation — which contains nearly $1 billion in transfers and new revenues over two years, helping fund the state’s $22.4 billion annual spending plan that takes effect July 1 — was hotly debated during the recent General Assembly session. Many lawmakers criticized taking money from the transportation trust fund, saying road projects would suffer.

The $3.1 billion trust fund pays for projects and operations of the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Aviation Administration, the Maryland Transit Administration, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority and other agencies. Money comes largely from taxes on gasoline, vehicle registration and title fees, and the federal government.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said that the governor instructed him to develop a plan to reimburse the fund, and the sale of “unused or underutilized assets” would be a significant part of the solution.

During his campaign for governor last year, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, spoke of privatizing BWI. The state purchased the former Friendship International Airport from the city of Baltimore in 1972 for $36 million.

“If what you are talking about is putting the airport up for bid to the highest bidder, in its rawest terms, that’s not going to happen,” Mr. Flanagan said. “But we are looking at various privatizing opportunities that could increase revenues and provide improved services.”

Mr. Flanagan said the ideas extend beyond the airport. “We own a railroad, a passenger railroad. We own subways and buses. We own the World Trade Center. We own a lot of equipment at the port,” he said. “What I’m looking for is what I would characterize as low-hanging fruit.”

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