The Color Purple and The Color of Money

Today, Maryland’s gas tax went up again. This time, a one-half of one-penny increase due to the General Assembly’s decision last session absolve themselves of the “need” to raise the gas tax in the future by hitching the gas tax to inflation.

Of course, if you are one of the millions of Maryland’s who are using our roads and highways to get from Point A to Point B, you won’t be seeing too many of the “benefits”” from this gas tax increase, as most of the money will be instead redirected toward Public Transit Projects. Roughly fifty-three percent of gas taxes will be redistributed to public transportation, which only roughly eight-percent of Marylanders actually use.

One of those projects which will be funded by your gas tax dollars is, of course, the Purple Line. Or, as the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady calls it, our “loco loco”.

Ms. O’Grady’s critique is one of the most damning written to date about the boondoggle that is the Purple Line, and includes all sorts of reminders about the failure of this project and the culture of corruption that we seek to replace in Annapolis.

  • A transportation expert hired to study the Purple Line noted that “the most cost-efficient way to reduce road congestion and serve the area between the Washington suburbs of Bethesda and New Carrollton would be to enhance rapid-transit bus service and improve access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes”, but that would not fit within the vision of the O’Malley Administration;
  • Governor O’Malley, who was unhappy with the ridership estimates carried over from the Ehrlich Administration, ordered then-transportation Secretary John Porcari to get a new estimate. Porcari hired the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, who not only got Porcari the numbers he wanted, but later gave Porcari a high-paying job as a Vice-President in their firm.
  • And the story put greater emphasis on the story I discussed last year about how the public-private partnership scheme in place leaves taxpayer on the hook for billions of dollars of cost overruns and failure to meet ridership goals since the state will actually own the lines.
It’s rare that a project here in Maryland, particularly one championed by a potential Democratic candidate for Presidents, gets such a through and visible smackdown in the mainstream media. But while the Purple Line itself is the impetus for such a piece, it goes back to the larger issue of taxes and and the use of revenues obtained from raising taxes.

One of the problems noted with the Purple Line is the fact that ridership estimates are optimistically high. This is a big problem, both from the potential “benefits” of constructing this line as well as some of the back-end costs of operating the line when the contractor in the public-private partnership is unable to recoup their costs. There would be a concern regarding the ridership estimates on their own, but the concern is even more so when you consider existing Farebox recovery rates in our state. As I have noted before the Maryland Transit Administration’s Farebox recovery rates are atrocious, and the worst of the worst are are on the light rail line. The Farebox recovery rate, by law, is required to be at least 35% and the MTA fails to even meet that basic standard. Stats available from 2012 show that local Baltimore-area MTA service could not even recover 30% of their revenues with a projection of even lower rates through the just-ended Fiscal Year. 

(It’s worth noting here that the completely privately operated MTR transit system in Hong Kong has a Farebox Recovery Rate of 186%).

Given the low-ridership projections combined with existing low farebox recovery rates, how can anybody seriously put this forward as a solution to Maryland’s transportation problems?

…and we haven’t even talked about the proposed Baltimore Red Line yet.

O’Malley-Brown Administration Graphic Used to Justify
Tax Hikes. Not pictured: discretionary selection of transit
over highway maintenance and expansion
It’s very easy to pick on the Maryland Transit Administration for being a poorly organized, poorly run drain on taxpayers, which I have done for years. However, this story on the Purple Line and using today’s Gas Tax increase as an example shows a bigger problem with Transportation planning as a whole in Maryland. There are roughly 66,000 center-line miles of road in our state, when you combine state, county, and municipal roads and highways.  Those 66,000 miles cover the transit needs of all Marylanders, not just those who live in urban areas and have the option of using Mass Transit. And those Marylanders who use those roads are directly subsidizing the transportation of those individuals in urban areas who are using Mass Transit. Yet, the focus for most of the last twenty years has been on adding mass transit infrastructure instead of dealing decisively with traffic and improving the ability of people to drive. With the exception of Governor Ehrlich and his ability to get the Intercounty Connector built, there has been virtually no emphasis on improving transportation flow. And there are many, many ways that our highway system can be improved upon (that we’ll save for a separate piece). 

But this story highlights something else important that you need to remember about Governor O’Malley and Lt. Governor Brown. The things that they have spent eight years working on have nothing to do with what’s in the best interests of all Marylanders. Instead, they have been doing everything they could do to try to fit Marylanders into the narrow box that they have created for us. In this example they are raising taxes on the majority of Marylanders who use their cars to get to work, engage in commerce, take their kids to games or go to Church, in order to subsidize the minority of Marylanders who are taking the rest of us for a ride. It’s something that Larry Hogan noted today in a statement on the tax hike:

“The O’Malley-Brown administration told us their massive gas tax hike was necessary to create jobs and fund transportation projects through the Transportation Trust Fund.  Yet job creation remains stalled and long-overdue road repairs languish.  And while they were taking more out of our pockets at the pump to fund the Transportation Trust Fund, they were simultaneously siphoning $861 out of it to pay for their pet projects…There was absolutely no reason for Martin O’Malley and Anthony Brown to raid our Transportation Trust Fund.  In fact, prior to their $861 million heist, Maryland received $771 million in federal stimulus funding, which like the Transportation Trust Fund, was primarily earmarked for “shovel ready” infrastructure projects.  The incredible end result of this administration’s reckless spending and mismanagement was that instead of having a total of $1.6 billion in the bank to make vital repairs and upgrades to our roads and bridges, they spent the stimulus dollars and gas tax dollars elsewhere.  It’s time to roll back the O’Malley-Brown gas tax hikes and spend our infrastructure funds where they belong on roads and bridges.” 

There are so many instances over the course of the last eight years with eighty-plus tax and fee hikes where the O’Malley-Brown Administration has robbed Peter to pay Paul, raising taxes and fees on one subset of individuals to pay for programs and services that benefit a different subset that does not have to bear the burden of paying those tax and fee increases. And there are so many instances over the course of the last eight years where the O’Malley-Brown Administration has identified “priorities” that need to be fixed and instead of working on those “priorities” (say, infrastructure projects) they have instead raised taxes to fund alternative priorites (like, say, mass transit).

The Purple Line is merely a microcosm of the hole the O’Malley-Brown Administration has dug for us. As Governor O’Malley likes to say, “to govern is to choose” and the people of this state are going to get the opportunity to choose this November between a party that will continue to raise taxes on middle and working class Marylanders while failing to do the things that will improve our quality of life here in our state…..or they have the opportunity to Change Maryland. 
And that, friends, is what this election is all about.

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