By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
8:04 PM EST, January 22, 2013
Attempting to break a years-long stalemate over transportation revenue, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller intends to introduce legislation that would allow local governments and regional authorities to raise money for roads and mass transit.
Members of Miller's staff said the bill, which is still being drafted, is likely to include some familiar forms of transportation revenue, including a gas tax increase. But it also would include creation of new regional authorities to carry out transit projects and permission for local jurisdictions to impose their own taxes for local road projects.
Overall, the measure would be a dramatic departure from what Gov. Martin O'Malley has called the "One Maryland" approach under which transportation taxes and fees are imposed equally in all parts of the state. The revenue goes into a common Transportation Trust Fund that pays for all transportation projects except those funded by tolls.
O'Malley said Tuesday night that he has spoken to Miller about the proposal and looks forward to reading the bill.
"I think we all need to be open to ideas that will work in a fair way to address this growing quality-of-life problem we have called traffic congestion," the governor said. That, he said, includes Miller's regional approaches to transportation financing.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch welcomed Miller's legislation. "He's put forth the first idea, the first initiative, and I give him credit for that," Busch said. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, said House leaders were considering their own alternatives.
The governor has said repeatedly that the state needs to raise about $700 million in new revenue each year to deal with a shortfall that has halted most projects except for system maintenance. But O'Malley, who saw his proposal for a sales tax on gasoline stall in the General Assembly last year, has not yet made a proposal this year.
The issue is sensitive because while the public has a hearty appetite for transportation projects, polls shows that voters are vehemently opposed to raising the state's 23.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax, which was last increased in 1992.
O'Malley said the political difficulty of raising the gas tax is compounded by a tendency for prices to rise in the spring – just as the legislature is meeting. He has suggested that a 1-cent increase in the sales tax, dedicated to transportation, might be more palatable to voters.
Miller said Tuesday that the conventional cents-on-the-gallon gas tax should be a part of the mix. He was cool to the idea of replacing it with sales taxes, as proposed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
"The sales tax is not tied into roads," Miller said, noting that the gas tax has historically been viewed as a user fee.
Miller also said regional transit authorities of some sort need to be established to carry out the three big transit projects Maryland now has on its wish list – Baltimore's Red Line, the Montgomery-Prince George's Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway in the Interstate 270 corridor. Together the projects are expected to cost more than $5 billion – an amount rural legislators don't want to see taken out of the gas taxes paid by their constituents.
According to Senate staff, one key element that hasn't been determined is how any regional authorities might be funded, though it is likely that residents of transit-intensive urban areas might pay more than those in rural areas. Staff members said higher income, sales and property taxes are all being considered as funding sources.
The proposal on regional authorities is part of Miller's effort to break a rural-urban deadlock and forge a new consensus. Some Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin, have said that some GOP lawmakers would consider supporting a revenue package that lifted some of the burden of transit projects from their areas of the state.
Miller also said the counties should be given the authority to raise their own revenues to make local transportation improvements.
Miller aides have spoken favorably about a bill proposed by Sen. Ronald N. Young, a Frederick County Democrat, under which counties would be given the authority to raise the gas tax by up to 2 cents a gallon in their areas to pay for transportation projects.
Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transit Association, said other states have given regional transit authorities local taxation powers. It's not unusual for urban counties to pay greater levels of taxation than rural jurisdictions, he said.
"There definitely are examples around the country where you have different counties with different contributions to their transit systems," Guzzetti said.
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