Maryland transit spending: No bang for the buck

Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun

Wendell Cox Oct 11, 2011


Unlike many elected officials and transportation planners, Maryland state comptroller Peter Franchot understands the connection between economic growth and mobility. Mr. Franchot proposed suspending the state's gasoline tax on long weekends during the summer to encourage people to travel.

The comptroller's proposal came at the same time Gov. Martin O'Malley's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding considered recommendations to increase transportation funding, including a potential increase in the state gasoline tax.

This effort puts the cart before the horse. Before more money is sought, Maryland should ensure that all transportation money is spent on transportation and that maximum value is obtained from transportation expenditures. The commission rightly noted the necessity of putting the "trust" back into the state Transportation Trust Fund. For years, governors have taken money from the transportation trust fund to balance the state budget. Since 2003, these raids have totaled $675 million.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion in the state continues to worsen, and this bureaucratic process has wronged drivers and commercial motor freight carriers. First, they paid fuel taxes they were promised would be used to improve transportation but which were instead diverted to other uses. Second, they have had to sit longer in traffic because the transportation improvements were not made.

Maryland faces a serious competitiveness problem in transportation. Traffic congestion has continued to increase over the last 10 years across the state and especially in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. Congestion imposes costs, not only in terms of personal and business time, but also by increasing the cost of goods and services because transportation costs are higher.

Once trust has been restored, transportation money needs to be used effectively. We know, for example, that transportation improvements reducing travel times the most lead to greater economic growth, more job creation and reduction of poverty. In recent years, approximately 45 percent of Maryland's road and transit funding has been spent on transit. Yet, transit only accounts for approximately 3 percent of travel in the state. This disparity is caused in part by an intention, or an illusion, that transit can attract a material share of drivers from their cars. Approximately the same share of Marylanders get to work by transit today as did in 1980, illustrating the negligible effect of this imbalance.

Transit has failed to change the commuting equation partly because it has virtually no potential to materially reduce travel times; transit takes so much longer for most trips than cars. For example, in the Baltimore metropolitan area, the average one-way transit work trip takes 53 minutes, nearly double the average trip to work by car at 28 minutes. In the Washington metropolitan area, the average one-way transit work trip takes 47 minutes compared to the average automobile work trip time of 32 minutes.

At the same time, a recent Brookings Institution report found that, on average, fewer than 10 percent of the jobs in the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas can be reached by transit within 45 minutes during peak periods. No wonder that nearly 85 percent of Marylanders use cars to get to work, while fewer than 1 in 10 use transit. Transit is not a viable option for the overwhelming majority of workers in Maryland, at whatever conceivable level of expenditure.

These times are difficult for taxpayers and for the governments they finance. Things are not likely to improve in the near future. Considering an increase in the gasoline tax is premature when the state hasn't even spent transportation money for transportation. Moreover, spending should be focused on improving economic outcomes, which means reducing travel times and at the lowest cost per reduced hour of delay.


Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international consulting public policy firm in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is also a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris (a national university) and a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.