Rebelling Against Glendening’s Transit Dogma
Originally Published in The Herald-Mail
Bringing to mind Herbert Hoover’s 1933 list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for the incoming Roosevelt administration, outgoing Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari continues to push for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax. Like FDR, the Ehrlich administration should ignore the advice. Maryland transportation policy suffers from fundamental flaws that require serious reform, not the raising of taxes.
Porcari, like his boss Parris Glendening, dogmatically clings to the belief that transit projects should receive a large portion of the Old Line State’s transportation funding even though they can serve only an extremely small percentage of transportation needs. Current state plans, for example, call for spending approximately 50 percent of transportation money on transit. That would be fine if transit represented 50 percent of travel in the state. It might even be fine if there were some credible vision that transit ridership might increase to the point that it represents 50 percent of travel. But anyone who has such a vision is suffering a wild hallucination.
Today, transit represents less than two percent of travel in Maryland. That means that, for every mile of travel, the state is spending at least 50 times as much on transit as highways. And that is after the billions of dollars that have already been spent on the Washington area Metro subway system, the MARC commuter rail system, and the Baltimore subway and light rail system. Yet, despite all of that hyper-expensive infrastructure, 2000 U.S. Census data indicate that transit’s share of work trips has declined in both Baltimore and Washington since before the new rail systems were built.
That should prompt us to ask, Why are transit riders so favored that they receive 50 times more financial support than people who drive or ride in carpools? The answer to that is Glendening’s dogmatic view of transportation. To him, the automobile is the Great Satan; a dollar spent on transit is virtuous, one spent on highways is evil.
While Baltimore and Washington were building their rail transit systems, 99 percent of new travel in Maryland was by personal vehicle. Roadway expansion did not keep up, not least because of the politicized process that the Glendening administration used to dole out transportation money to powerful special interests. Unless that process is dismantled and transportation money is spent in a way that benefits all Marylanders, the already-gridlocked roads will grow worse.
The first thing that the new Ehrlich administration and the General Assembly need to understand is that roadways are vital to this area’s transportation needs. There is no way that any significant portion of future roadway demand can be addressed by transit. Hence, Maryland’s overburdened highways need to be improved and, in several key places, expanded. Some new roads need to be built. Better traffic management is needed. To keep Maryland moving means keeping traffic moving, and getting it moving where it is stopped.
That is a gargantuan task, and in order to complete it the state must first depoliticize transportation. Roadway improvements should not be funded by winking and nodding politicians, but by the people who use the roads – that is, by tolls. A regional high-occupancy toll lane system – fashioned after the extremely successful Route 91 high occupancy toll lane in Orange County, Calif. -- would go a long way to providing the additional capacity that could get traffic moving on the area’s freeways. The private sector is capable of developing such systems and should be unleashed as new capacity is commercialized. There is already a private firm proposal for adding toll lanes to the Capital Beltway.
The Department of Transportation’s role should be limited to granting and supervising franchises, as it figures out how to reorient its distorted funding priorities. The department definitely should not be given more tax money to be spent on projects selected for their political benefit, not their transportation benefit.
Maryland’s Transportation Department has worked hard to earn residents’ distrust. It is time to replace dogma with pragmatics.
Wendell Cox is an adjunct scholar of the Maryland Public Policy Institute (www.mdpolicy.org) and is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in St. Louis, a transportation and demographics firm.