Beverley Swaim-Staley announced last week that she will leave her post as Maryland's secretary of transportation, effective in July. As the O'Malley administration initiates its search for a new leader, let's consider the issues facing the new secretary on his/her first day on the job.
Department of Transportation (MDOT) is perhaps the state's largest agency—at least in terms of scope of operations, number of personnel (more than 10,000), and budgeted funds (well over $3 billion annually). MDOT consists of five modal administrations covering aspects of transportation individual citizens are likely to use (highways, ports, transit, motor vehicles and airports). Additionally, the independent Maryland Transportation Authority has responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the state's toll facilities, and also falls under the auspices of the MDOT Secretary.
Clearly, to successfully administer MDOT, a person must be capable of putting in place a balanced and comprehensive plan for effectively meeting the disparate needs in each of these areas. Competing interests will most certainly force any MDOT Secretary to balance road-building with transit construction, or perhaps determining how much support to give to seagoing freight traffic versus goods delivered via airplane.
In my days serving as the chief of staff at the Maryland Transportation Authority, I saw first-hand how challenging this tight-rope walk could be. Then-MDOT Secretary Robert Flanagan had to simultaneously respond to all sorts of issues. There were days when he went from advocating for funding to construct the Intercounty Connector road project, to addressing the concerns of a major shipping line operating at the Port of Baltimore, and then capping it all off with overseeing a re-design of Baltimore's decades-old bus routing system.
As if these diverse logistical concerns aren't enough, our new MDOT Secretary will continue to confront the problem of finding the resources to pay for all of Maryland's transportation infrastructure needs. According to estimates from the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, our state faces a $40 billion funding shortfall for transportation over the next twenty years. Maryland has an enormous need for both system preservation projects, but also projects to add new transportation capacity. Funding each of the top priority projects for the city and each of Maryland's 23 counties would require an additional $12 billion alone.
A new MDOT Secretary will simply have to champion a range of solutions to this funding challenge. Fundamentally, I believe the new secretary must insist on halting the diversions of funds from Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). Since 1983, such diversions of TTF revenues—to balance the state operating budget—have taken place 13 times.
Until this practice is ended, it will be nearly impossible to generate the widespread support necessary to implement any enhancements for transportation funding. Given that construction costs continue to skyrocket, identifying sustainable funding has to be the top priority for the new MDOT Secretary.