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In a recent survey of state legislators nationwide, infrastructure was tabbed as the third-leading priority behind education and economic development. Within the infrastructure category, respondents said building and maintaining roads and bridges was the highest transportation priority, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures survey.

With the 2013 General Assembly on the horizon, it is imperative that state lawmakers give more than the usual lip service to Marylandís transportation needs. Budget analysts have warned that the state transportation funding situation looks bleak once again.

Voicing the concerns of their beleaguered members, the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties have made restoring highway user revenues, which have been slashed to the tune of almost $1 billion in recent years, a top legislative priority.

Earlier this month, analysts from the Department of Legislative Services told members of the joint Spending Affordability Committee that some funding projections for fiscal 2013-2018 by the Maryland Department of Transportation were overly optimistic. The analysts said the state should consider alternative funding sources for two major transit projects that arenít even included in MDOTís draft five-year, $5.7 billion funding plan the Washington-area Purple Line light rail and the Baltimore-area Red Line. Each carries a projected price tag in the neighborhood of $2 billion.

Analyst Jonathan Martin told committee members that options such as public-private partnerships, regional sales or motor fuel taxes should be on the table. Earlier this year, the Joint Legislative and Executive Commission on Oversight of Public-Private Partnerships, chaired by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, said that, realistically, 6 percent to 10 percent of the stateís annual capital budget, or up to roughly $315 million, could be financed through these partnerships. That still would leave a large funding void. The November 2011 final report of the Maryland Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding, which was pretty much ignored, estimated the state needs an additional $870 million annually in new transportation revenues to meet current needs.

All this plants a bleak picture for funding for two of Southern Marylandís high-priority projects — replacing the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge over the Patuxent River and the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River.

The commission report recommended increasing the stateís gas tax, which hasnít been raised in two decades, by 15 cents per gallon over three years. Even though Gov. Martin OíMalley hasnít decided whether to reintroduce a gas tax proposal this year (he favored adding the stateís 6 percent sales tax to gasoline earlier this year), raising the gas tax is sure to come up in the General Assembly session. Also likely to get another airing is a proposal to put the stateís oft-raided Transportation Trust Fund in a lockbox. Last session, 22 state senators proposed a constitutional amendment to that effect.

What the various proposals, warnings, suggestions, recommendations, hand-wringing exercises etc. suggest more than anything, however, is that this yearís legislative session is finally the time for Marylandís lawmakers to make a firm commitment to address the stateís substantial transportation infrastructure needs.

The lockbox proposal and what it means no more raids on the Transportation Trust Fund is a good starting point.