The latest chart tracking Baltimore-area gasoline prices looks a bit like a sandwich cut in half diagonally, so steep is the decline. A gallon of unleaded has fallen about 28 cents per gallon (nearly 8 percent) since mid-October and is expected to fall further — despite the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the busiest travel times of the year.
That's substantial, but it's also little noticed by most Marylanders. Economists aren't forecasting a sudden upswing in the job market. Retailers aren't bracing for a record holiday rush because of all those petro-dollars now lining consumer pockets. Nor are they dropping prices because of suddenly lower shipping costs.
The point is that energy prices have become a bit elastic, and we adapt to these fluctuations. Five, 10, 15 or even 20 cents one way or the other is not a crisis. Investments in conservation and energy alternatives along with increased domestic oil and gas production have not only helped stabilize prices, they've made it possible to be less subject to the whims of foreign providers.
What is a genuine crisis, however, is the prospect that our transportation system could soon be in sharp decline. Maryland can't continue to function on 1992-era gasoline tax rates, at least not if the state wants to grow its economy.
That fact was made abundantly clear in a recent analysis by the legislature's top budget expert that not only warns that the Maryland Department of Transportation has greatly overstated future revenues but that the state will be reduced to a "maintenance only" transportation budget within five years. No road widening projects, no replacement bridges, no safety upgrades, no expansion of any port or airport in this state, no MARC or transit expansion. Just filling pot holes and watching the infrastructure deteriorate.
Maryland is already one of the nation's most traffic-congested states, so what would such a future look like? This much is certain: a lot worse than what we see today.
Gov. Martin O'Malley recognized this and asked the General Assembly to raise the tax on gasoline nearly one year ago, and the proposal went exactly nowhere. Now, the forecast only looks worse. Maryland needs to invest — and yes, "invest," is the word best suited for these circumstances — in transportation.
Nobody likes to pay more in taxes, but in this case, not paying more in taxes is what is certain to stifle the economy. Don't take our word for it; that's the view of most business organizations — including the Greater Baltimore Committee — which have strongly supported a gas tax increase.
There are alternatives, of course. As the recent legislative analysis notes, Maryland could use general fund revenues, seek more public-private partnerships, create toll roads or bridges and use other nontraditional methods. But none can possibly bridge the multibillion-dollar gap. That's the cold, hard reality of the situation.
What's needed is an all-of-the-above strategy that not only raises the gas tax but will keep the revenue stream ahead of inflation. Applying the sales tax to wholesale gas transactions is one alternative. Tying the gas tax to inflation is another. Ultimately, what Maryland needs is the equivalent of a 20-cent boost, but that can be phased in over several years.
What will that get taxpayers? For starters, it means a light rail expansion for Baltimore. The east-west Red Line, a $2.2 billion project to run from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, would do much to connect the city's disjointed transit systems — but it's highly unlikely to happen without a gas tax increase.
That tax hike could also pay for projects in some of the state's most traffic-clogged corridors, particularly in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs. Adding more lanes to the approaches to Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is high on the state's wish list, as is widening the Baltimore Beltway and accommodating recent expansions of Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade.
Lawmakers have waited on this long enough. House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller need to settle their differences on this issue and agree to back a gas tax increase when legislators return to Annapolis in January. It's the single biggest thing they can do to create jobs in this state, potentially thousands of them. In this economy, and with the prospect of federal downsizing looming, that alone should compel them to act.