The task force studying Maryland's transportation funding has yet to finalize its recommendations, but members should expect to receive a great deal of criticism when they do. The panel's preliminary recommendations made Tuesday include a 15-cent increase in the state's gas tax, and opposition to gas taxes, state or federal, has become a rallying cry for the right-wing.
Never mind that, if enacted, the proposed 15-cent per gallon tax increase, achieved in nickel increments over the next three years, is almost certain to go unnoticed by motorists. Prices at the pump fluctuate by more than that without much effect on the economy, commuting trends or inflation. It wouldn't even make Maryland an expensive place to buy gas since the state's prices ($3.34 per gallon for unleaded) are currently running about 16 cents below the national average (and 23 cents below last month's prices in Maryland), according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Decrying the gas tax — as if the levy was the real culprit for high energy prices — has become such a common theme for populist politicians that the public might be forgiven for actually believing it to be true. In reality, Maryland's gas tax has remained unchanged since 1992, when it represented about 21 percent of the cost of a gallon of gasoline. The tax would have to be raised by nearly 50 cents per gallon for that percentage to still hold true today.
How effective is the anti-tax campaign? A recent poll commissioned by Maryland's petroleum distributors and truckers (both of whom despise motor fuel taxes, it should be noted) found that nearly 60 percent of voters oppose even a 5-cent increase in the gas tax. Raise it by a dime and the opposition increased to three-quarters of voters.
It's also become fashionable to suggest that Maryland would not be facing a shortfall in transportation funding if money hadn't been transferred out of the state's transportation trust fund to help balance the general fund budget. While it's true that one-time transfers have contributed to the problem, the state's transportation needs would still be underfunded if the state had not taken a single dime from the fund in its effort to pay for, one should note, other public needs.
That's because as much as the Average Joe Commuter would like to receive something for nothing, the transportation system is not free. The basic infrastructure, from roads to bridges, subway lines to airport runways, has to be maintained, replaced, and expanded upon. After 19 years of inflation, the pennies collected at the pump don't go as far as they used to go.
A gas tax increase won't be the only transportation revenue measure on the table this January. The panel is also expected to propose raising vehicle registration fees by 50 percent and doubling vehicle emission testing charges. Why these fees are considered less controversial is a wonder. In 2004, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. persuaded lawmakers to boost biennial registration fees on passenger cars from $81 to $128 and on sport utility vehicles and trucks from $108 to $180 and was toasted as a pro-business conservative Republican.
Meanwhile, a nickel on the gas tax can add up, too, but only after one purchases many hundreds of gallons of gasoline at prices that are likely to continue to fluctuate with or without a tax increase. For many drivers (particularly those with fuel-efficient vehicles), the actual, long-term costs of such major fee increases versus a small gas tax hike are not much different.
Still, the real reason why the Maryland General Assembly needs to increase the gas tax is because it would be the best economic boost and job creator available. Thousands of construction workers, engineers, designers and contractors would be put to work, and Maryland businesses would benefit from a less congested, more efficient transportation system. You want to identify a jobs-killer? The Baltimore-Washington area's commuting times now rank among the worst in the nation. If Gov. Martin O'Malley is looking for an economic stimulus plan, well, here it is.
Financing Baltimore's Red Line light rail project alone would be a tremendous economic boost for the region. The $2 billion Woodlawn-to-Bayview transit line this week qualified for expedited review by federal authorities (one of only 14 such projects in the nation), but it can't be built until the state can come up with the means to pay for its share of the cost.
That's why the major business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Washington Board of Trade are certain to come out in favor of the proposed $800 million boost in transportation spending, the majority of which would be made possible by the gas tax increase. William Donald Schaefer increased the gas tax not once but twice in his eight years as governor to its current level, a fact little remarked upon at his funeral last April when he was remembered as one of the most effective and beloved leaders in the history of the state.