Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

Budget Debate Starts in House

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates today begins debate on a state budget proposal that reforms pensions for state employees, restores a large chunk of cuts to K-12 education funding and raises several fees to generate tens of millions in new revenue to help shore up a dedicated transportation fund.

The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a series of budget cuts and fee increases to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal.

Lawmakers will debate a series of amendments to the budget today before giving the bill preliminary approval. A final vote on the budget is expected Friday.

The budget approved by the Appropriations Committee would increase several fees to generate more than $60 million in new revenue. The bulk –about $50 million — will come from a proposed increase to the titling fee for vehicle purchases, which would double from $50 to $100. Another $2 million to $3 million in new revenue would come from doubling the fee for vanity license plates from $25 to $50.

The money generated from those two fees will go toward the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which O’Malley is planning to tap to the tune of $100 million this session to plug budget holes.

“This is designed to provide some help and relief for transportation instead of doing some sort of gasoline tax,” said Delegate John Bohanan, a St. Mary’s Democrat and key member of the Appropriations Committee. “We’ve got to come up with some funds for transportation.”

The budget approved by the committee also increases a fee Marylanders pay to file property tax records from $20 to $40. That change is estimated to raise about $10 million, Bohanan said.

House Republicans fired back at the House spending plan Wednesday, saying the budget does little to address long-term debt and spending. The proposed fees, said House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell, amount to the government “taking money out of the private sector.”

“We don’t have a revenue problem. These are revenue mechanisms,” said O’Donnell, R-Calvert. “We have a spending problem and this budget doesn’t address our over-spending.”

House Republicans are readying amendments to present today. O’Donnell did not elaborate on specifics but said the amendments will “highlight greater opportunities to reduce spending in Maryland.”

House GOP leaders presented a proposal earlier this month that outlined $621 million in additional spending cuts on top of the nearly $1 billion in reductions O’Malley proposed in his budget.

O’Malley’s budget proposal would cut the state’s structural deficit, which is estimated between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion, by $730 million. The House budget goes a bit further and seeks to slash the structural deficit by $803 million.

That’s not enough, Republicans say, and the GOP proposal presented last month would eliminate about two-thirds of the deficit in fiscal 2012 and the rest by fiscal 2013.

“The Democrat plan is silent with regard to when the structural deficit will be completely fixed,” O’Donnell said. This budget “doesn’t solve our problem and it kicks the can down the road.”

Bohanan, the chair of the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, said Democrats refused to cut deeper because any further reductions could “decimate” education funding. The committee voted last week to restore about $58 million of the $94 million O’Malley cut in funding for K-12.

“That’s the one priority we continue to hold and maintain,” Bohanan said.

The House gets the first shot at the budget this year. Bohanan said the Senate is “in sync” with the majority of the House plan, but the two chambers will likely have to reconcile differences on pension reform.

The House is proposing to change O’Malley’s pension reform plan by requiring state employees to pay 7 percent of their salaries instead of 5 percent into their pension plans. O’Malley’s proposal would have given state employees the option to choose between 7 percent and 5 percent contributions.

The Senate on the other hand could move toward a shift to have local governments help pay for pensions. The House last year rejected a “wholesale shift,” Bohanan said.

“The main thing is going to be pensions,” he said. “We’ll be in sync on education funding, but pension reform will be different.”

By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.

Large Demonstrations Expected in Annapolis Monday Night

Friday, March 11th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – As the Senate prepares for a final vote on Maryland in-state tuition legislation Monday night, Annapolis police will be closing segments of Rowe Boulevard, Bladen Street and College Avenue approaching the State House, anticipating about 5,000 protesters.

Senate President Mike Miller told senators Friday to arrive early for the session, which starts at 8 p.m. Monday. Miller reminded lawmakers that they would be voting for what was best for the state, and asked them not to be swayed by the crowd.

Miller’s office said the crowd would be a combination of people with interest in the tuition bill, known as the Maryland DREAM Act, and people with interest in retirement and pension security.

The city of Annapolis issued a press release naming Marylanders for Retirement Security, a coalition of organizations representing public employees, as the group responsible for the rally. The city expects 5,000 people.

Maryland Capitol Police said the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is the only organization that has taken out a permit to protest Monday night. AFSCME said they are expecting about 10,000 people, including AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, demonstrating for pensions, education, health care and retiree benefits.

CASA de Maryland plans to bring 30 to 40 students and members in support of in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Incoming lanes of Rowe Boulevard will be closed at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium from 6:15 to 6:35 p.m. Inbound lanes of Bladen Street from Calvert Street to College Avenue will be closed from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., as will College Avenue from Church Circle to St. John’s Street.

– By Capital News Service’s Holly Nunn.

Cardin Proposes Elimination of Blenders’ Ethanol Tax Credit

Friday, March 11th, 2011
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced legislation to repeal the  Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, which gives companies 45 cents on every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline.

“There is no real justification for the subsidy for the blend on ethanol,” Cardin said. The subsidy does not help corn growers, but rather contributes to the profits of oil companies, he said.

Should the bill become law, the short-term impact on corn growers would be relatively small, said John Urbanchuk, technical director at Cardno ENTRIX, an environmental and natural resources consulting firm. But the long-term effect on ethanol demand could be substantial, he said.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, comes on the heels of a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last week saying the VEETC subsidy cost $5.4 billion in 2010. The report indicated the measure could cost $6.75 billion in forgone revenue in 2015.

“We’re looking for ways to save money,” Cardin said. “I think this is way you can save several billion dollars to help balance the budget.”

A demand for ethanol would remain without the VEETC because of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires minimum volumes of biofuels like ethanol in transportation fuels, according to the GAO report.

“Importantly, the fuel standard is now at a level high enough to ensure that a market for domestic ethanol production exists in the absence of the ethanol tax credit and may soon itself be at a level beyond what can be consumed by the nation’s existing vehicle infrastructure,” the report stated.

Growth Energy, an organization advocating for ethanol production and use, issued a statement condemning the bill.

“The ethanol industry is fully prepared to reform and reduce the cost of current tax programs,” said CEO Tom Buisin in a statement released Thursday. “I would suggest Sens. Coburn and Cardin introduce legislation requiring the oil industry to do the same. ”

Urbanchuk said a repeal of the tax credit could create another unintended consequence: an increase in the already-growing investment in foreign ethanol production.

“We’ll end up, instead of being a net exporter, perhaps being a net importer of ethanol again,” he said.

Cardin acknowledged opposition but remained confident in his objectives for the legislation.

“There could be some regional controversy because people identify it with corn, but I really think when people look at it they’ll see that this is not really an issue about the corn industry,” Cardin said. “It’s really an issue about removing a subsidy that’s no longer needed.”

– By Capital News Service’s Laura E. Lee

Lawmaker to Governor: Hands Off Dedicated Funds

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS – Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Annapolis, is preparing legislation that would allow voters to decide whether the governor can continue using funds dedicated to specific causes to help pay for the state’s day-to-day operations.

McMillan’s bill, which he’s dubbed the “Dedicated State Funds Protection Act,” would establish a constitutional amendment that would go before voters in November 2012 to block the transfer of money from the state’s dedicated funds in order to balance the budget.

The state currently allocates money to a number of funds dedicated to projects like fixing roads and bridges, Chesapeake Bay restoration and preventing cancer caused by smoking.

Shuffling money from dedicated funds to the state’s general fund has become common practice McMillan said, noting that Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Gov. Bob Ehrlich have used the technique.

“Frequently, we’ll pass a new tax or fee and it’s supposed to go to this wonderful cause. They’ll lure people into supporting something like that because they know the purpose they want it  to go to,” he said. “As soon as the legislation passes and the monies are collected the governor … will take the money and transfer that fund into the general fund.”

For example: O’Malley, in his proposed fiscal 2012 budget, wants to transfer $60 million from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to the general fund. Another $40 million from the transportation fund will go to the state’s rainy day fund under O’Malley’s proposed budget.

Lawmakers estimate $300 million has been taken from the transportation fund in recent years to address general fund deficits.

O’Malley’s fiscal 2012 budget also proposes shuffling $25 million in money dedicated to restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.

McMillan refers to this strategy as a “shell game.”

“If you really want the money to go to a dedicated fund then you need to make sure it doesn’t’ just go there, but that it stays there,” he said.

McMillan’s legislation is similar to a bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola. Garagiola’s proposal, which seeks to raise the gas tax by 10 cents and vehicle registration fees by 50 percent, includes a constitutional amendment to prohibit the state from “raiding” the transportation fund.

McMillan’s legislation goes a step further by trying to block the state from transferring money out of any of the state’s dedicated funds.

He shopped the bill on the House floor Wednesday, looking to drum up support before it’s introduced later this week (Friday is the deadline to file a House bill with the guarantee it will get a hearing). McMillan said he secured six co-sponsors in the process, all Democrats.

“Truthfully, I’ll easily have a lot of Republicans who will be supportive of this,” he said.”I’m going to colleagues from the other side of the aisle first.”

– By Capital News Service’s David Saleh Rauf.

Takoma Park Residents: Concerns About Project

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Some Takoma Park residents voiced concerns that a redevelopment plan could funnel more traffic to residential neighborhoods during a neighborhood meeting Thursday night.

Residents of Takoma Park’s Ward 6 said they are worried that the proposed Takoma-Langley Crossroads Sector Plan and a new light rail line, which would create two Metro stops on University Boulevard, would cause problems.

Takoma Park Council member Frederick Schultz, who represents Ward 6, said the redevelopment plan calls for more retail space, and that would generate more movement.

“We don’t want the neighborhood to be used as a cut-through area,” Schultz said, of the area near the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard.

The Takoma-Langley Crossroads Sector Plan was created by Montgomery County planners in anticipation of the construction of the Purple Line, a light rail system that will run from New Carrollton to Bethesda.

The sector plan, which hasn’t yet been voted on by the Montgomery County Council, would include rezoning of about 55 acres into a CR Zone, which allows a mixed use for residential, commercial and office purposes. The plan would put the highest density commercial area close to the Purple Line Metro stations and a proposed $12 million transit center, in the northwest corner of the University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue intersection.

The center would provide a central location for the various bus routes that serve the area and will include a shelter and restrooms, according to the Maryland Transit Administration’s website.

Montgomery County’s development plan also calls for creating new streets, improving New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard and building sidewalks and bike paths to encourage walking and biking as means of transportation.

At the end of the meeting Ilona Blanchard, community development coordinator for Takoma Park, proposed scheduling a meeting every two weeks to include community input before the next County Council hearing on the proposal in May.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Maite Fernandez

UMD President: No Purple Line Not an Option

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Former Maryland governor Parris Glendening and Elizabeth Day, director of the Office of Project Planning at the Federal Transit Administration, listen while Ali Haghani, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, speaks at the Purple Line Town Hall meeting. (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Maite Fernandez)

Former Maryland governor Parris Glendening and Elizabeth Day, director of the Office of Project Planning at the Federal Transit Administration, listen while Ali Haghani, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, speaks at the Purple Line Town Hall meeting. (Photo by Maryland Newsline's Maite Fernandez)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Students, faculty, state and federal officials discussed campus locations for the Purple Line Tuesday evening, during a hearing in which the university president set the tone.

“Not having a Purple Line is not an option,” said Dr. Wallace Loh.

Former governor Parris Glendening, president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, underscored the importance of the light rail line to the University of Maryland’s interests.

“This Purple Line makes us competitive,” Glendening told the crowd of a few hundred. “It is one of the most powerful economic development tools in any community’s arsenal.”

The proposed rail line, expected to reduce congestion on the Capital Beltway, would stretch 16 miles from Bethesda, through the center of the University of Maryland campus and across Route 1 to the future East Campus development. It would continue through to the College Park Metrorail Station before eventually terminating at the New Carrollton Metrorail Station, according to the Maryland Transit Authority.

Its alignment through campus is under contention. MTA has proposed an above-ground route along Campus Drive, through the center of campus.

But some members of the campus community have expressed concerns about the effect passing trains could have on sensitive lab equipment if the Purple Line is routed along Campus Drive. Others have raised concerns about pedestrian safety, if the line is above ground.

Ralign Wells, chief of the MTA, noted the crowd’s seeming support Tuesday of the Campus Drive station.

“I was glad to see everyone in favor of our proposal,” Wells said.

Not quite everyone.

Two members of the panel, Elise Miller-Hooks, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Michael Loehr, deputy practice leader of rail and transit at the engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald, spoke in favor of an alignment at Preinkert Drive.

“We think the Preinkert alignment increases safety and operational reliability,” Loehr said, reducing interference with pedestrians.

The University of Maryland released a report in October 2010 prepared by Hatch Mott MacDonald that suggested alternatives to the Campus Drive alignment, including a tunnel under Preinkert Drive.

But the estimated $50 million such a tunnel would cost is of concern to planners, said Monica Meade, MTA’s transportation and land use planning consultant.

“Any added cost will be a challenge for the state,” Meade said. “Clearly, the cost of anything is a big issue right now.”

Loh has not yet taken an official position on the Purple Line’s alignment, but will make a recommendation to Chancellor William Kirwan in coming months, said Millree Williams, a university spokesman. Kirwan will then make a recommendation to the Board of Regents, which will inform the MTA.

The MTA sends the final plan to the federal government.

Christopher Ellepola, 25, who has lived in College Park since he was 2 and is now a computer science major at the University of Maryland, expressed disappointment that Loh did not throw his support behind the Campus Drive station.

“The risk to pedestrians is a non-issue,” Ellepola said. “The alternative is what we have now, and safety is already unacceptable.”

Construction of the Purple Line is expected to begin around 2013 or 2014 at the earliest, if funding is available, Meade said. To obtain sufficient funds, the project would first have to win highly competitive federal money to cover at least half of its approximately $1.7 billion cost, said Terry Owens, a spokesman for MTA.

The project would likely take three to five years to complete once started, according to the MTA.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Collin Berglund

MTA Considers Commuter Bus Connections to BWI

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

HANOVER, Md. – As the opening of the first phase of the Intercounty Connector nears, the Maryland Transit Administration is considering plans to add commuter bus service along the new Gaithersburg-to-Laurel toll highway.

The MTA held a public hearing Wednesday on two proposed routes, one going to Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport and the other to Fort Meade. Both would start at the Gaithersburg Park and Ride.

“We’re going to do our best to try and make this very successful and give commuters a best option,” said Glenn Saffran, deputy director for MARC and commuter bus service for MTA.

A handful of residents quizzed officials before the public hearing, but none asked questions during the session.

Saffran said the target market for the two bus routes would be travelers and employees of both the airport and agencies housed at Fort Meade, including the National Security Agency.

A one-way ride on either route would cost $5. Ten-ride passes and monthly passes would also be available.

The BWI route is expected to run 14 round-trips every day of the week, while the Fort Meade bus will run three times in the morning and four times in the afternoon.

“We’re in an area where an east-west transit market doesn’t exist now,” Saffran said. “To get to close to 50 percent capacity on these buses in the first six to 12 months will be a great goal.”

The first phase of the ICC, a seven-mile stretch between Interstate-270 in Gaithersburg and State Route 28, is slated to open in late 2010 or early 2011. The entire 18.8-mile road is expected to be completed in 2012, officials said.

Until the highway is finished, the express buses will take alternate routes to Interstate-95 and their final destinations. “We don’t want to detour these buses too far,” Saffran said. “If people are already into their commute time, and then taking the commuter bus, they don’t want to tour the countryside.”

MTA will accept public comments on the proposed bus service through Oct. 25.

The MTA is considering extending commuter bus service to Howard and Prince George’s counties. Commuter lines linking College Park with Urbana and Greenbelt with Germantown via the ICC are part of the proposal.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Justin Karp

Md. Transit Center, Bus Routes Win Grants

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Maryland won several federal transportation grants, beating out hundreds of other applications, under the latest round of stimulus funds awarded Wednesday.

The announcement for $1.5 billion in TIGER grants, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, came on the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Recovery Act.

One grant, for $14.8 million, will go a new transit center in Langley Park at the intersection of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. It will also help fund improvements for bus routes in the Washington-metropolitan area.

A press release from Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both Baltimore Democrats, said that construction for the Langley Park transit center is expected to begin this May and to be completed by February 2012. The construction project could create up to 134 jobs.

Another grant for $98 million grant will begin to improve CSX freight rail corridors that run through Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The initial $98 million will go to upgrading the corridor from northwest Ohio to Pennsylvania.

Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson said Maryland will work with the federal government to find future grants to fund freight rail improvements in the state.

Gov. Martin O’Malley said through spokesman Shaun Adamec the grants show the Obama administration’s commitment to infrastructure that is often overlooked and underfunded.

“Investing in our infrastructure creates jobs that can’t be outsourced, and helps get Marylanders back to work,” O’Malley added.

The U.S. Department of Transportation received more than 1,400 applications for projects all over the U.S. worth almost $60 billion, 40 times the amount available for this round of grants. More than half of the funding will go to economically distressed areas.

President Obama referenced the grants in a speech Wednesday marking the Recovery Act anniversary, which he said are going to “over 50 innovative transportation projects across America — everything from railroads in Appalachia to a new passenger terminal in New Orleans.”

-By Capital News Service’s Tiffany March