ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich earmarked $25 million of his fiscal 2005 budget released Wednesday to start repaying the $300 million he borrowed from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund last year to close a budget gap.
“It’s simply a down payment on the $300 million,” Ehrlich said during a news conference unveiling the new budget.
Transportation was one of Ehrlich’s key priorities during his successful campaign for governor in 2002. He then promised to end gridlock in the suburban Washington, D.C., area and fund the Inter-county Connector, planned to link Interstates 95 and 270.
The $25 million is an initial installment in a multiyear payback, said Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan. He said the funds would not be assigned to any specific project until the General Assembly approves the budget.
Although Ehrlich tapped the trust fund for deficit reduction, Cahalan said that had “absolutely no impact” on the state’s construction program.
The Ehrlich administration also deflated hopes that a gas tax hike could be used to fund transportation.
Maryland Budget and Management Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr. said the governor has not expressed much interest in raising the gas tax.
Yet the idea has strong support from transporation advocates, including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Stephen Del Giudice, chamber transportation coalition chairman, said the chamber backs a 5-cent gas tax increase to pay for highway projects. The tax hasn’t seen a hike in 12 years, he said.
“It’s getting to be critical,” Del Giudice said.
Ehrlich acknowledged the need for more transportation funding during the news conference and said he hopes to work with legislators to create a plan for various road projects.
“It’s one of the more difficult issues of this session,” Ehrlich said. “Everybody wants projects. Everybody understands the Transportation Trust Fund has been neglected for almost a decade and everybody knows there needs to be additional dollars in the trust fund.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the governor is obligated to repay the Transportation Trust Fund.
Busch also criticized a proposal by Delegate John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, to permit the state to borrow from the trust fund only for emergencies, ensuring the majority of the money is used for roads, bridges and transit.
“I think last year the governor had to do what he had to do when he borrowed the money from the Transportation Trust Fund and he has an obligation to pay that back,” Busch said. “But I think you have to have flexibility in government to be able to shift funds around from time to time.”