Lockbox image from Shutterstock.

Legislators in Maryland are asking voters to amend the state constitution to ensure that transportation taxes go to transportation projects. They say it’s necessary to keep governors from using the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to balance the budget, as many have done since the 1980s.

The fund gets revenue from the state gas tax, vehicle registration fees, titling taxes, and transit fares. If voters pass Question 1 in November, the governor won’t be able to dip into it without declaring a state of fiscal emergency and getting a three-fifths vote from both houses of the General Assembly.

To date, more than $1 billion has never been reimbursed to the Transportation Trust Fund. The measure is similar to a constitutional provision that secures Maryland’s education fund.

Who’s in favor

Question 1’s primary backing comes from the Committee to Protect Marylanders’ Transportation Trust Fund, a coalition made up of the Greater Baltimore Coalition, AAA Mid-Atlantic, the Corridor Cities Transitway Coalition, the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, Purple Line Now, Red Line Now, the Maryland Association of Realtors, and various chambers of commerce. The committee hopes to raise between $400,000 to $500,000 in campaign funds.

Right now, various transportation taxes in Maryland are supposed to go toward improving safety, reducing congestion, and improving mass transit, air travel, and port facilities. Question 1 proponents say placing this money in a “lockbox” would ensure funding both now and in the future, a must for effective long-term planning.

Beyond the state budget, safeguarded funds would give Maryland more certainty to match federal funding grants moving forward. This is an important step in securing increasingly-scarce transportation funding, particularly from the Federal Transit Administration and its competitive grants like the New Starts program.

Who’s not in favor

Formal opposition has yet to emerge, but some Republicans have publicly urged voters to turn down the proposition on the grounds that it doesn’t offer strong enough protection. The lockbox would only protect state funds; the state could still take away the funding it gives to local jurisdictions for their discretionary use.

“It’s not a lockbox. It’s not very difficult to get past,” Washington County delegate Andrew Serafini told the Baltimore Sun.

Who’s keeping quiet

Last year, transportation advocacy groups rallied to support an increase in the gas tax. That coalition included many smart growth groups, bicycling groups, and others. So far, groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Action Committee for Transit have not taken a position on the lockbox issue.

Ben Ross, former ACT President, criticized the lockbox idea in a post here in 2011. He said that it reinforces what he calls the false notion that drivers pay for roads. The gas tax comes in lieu of a sales tax on gas (though, after last year’s change, not as much as it once did), meaning that some of what drivers pay at the pump could have been general revenue were gas subject to the sales tax instead of having a dedicated gas tax.

Some transit and smart growth advocates have privately said they support the proposal but are nervous about the fact that this initiative is coming primarily from road lobbying groups like AAA and SMTA, who very clearly advocate for more money to expand roads.

Others worry that more spending on transportation overall, rather than more targeted spending on transportation, could ultimately help many residents get around faster in the short term, but also fuel the ongoing destruction of farmland and wilderness as more suburban developments crop up at the edge of the Washington and Baltimore regions.

This may explain why groups focused on a specific transportation project, like the CCT coalition or Purple Line Now, would sign on while smart growth organizations might have mixed feelings. This has been a similar tension in states that have considered ballot measures to find both roads and transit. There, many transit supporters cheered for the measures because they would build much-needed transit, while others worried more about the destructive effects of the road spending in the package.

This is good on balance

Passing the constitutional amendment to secure funding in a lockbox would send the message that transportation is a priority for Maryland residents. As transit and smart growth advocates continue to be engaged, these groups can ensure that the funding is spent wisely.

“This is a situation where the perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” said Greater Baltimore Committee president Donald C. Fry, whose organization has been lobbying for a securing amendment for years. “This is clearly a good protection.”