Summer Sale! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
News Opinion Editorial

Pump up the economy

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.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Rural counties need a transportation lockbox [Letter]

    Rural counties need a transportation lockbox [Letter]

    This fall, Maryland voters will have a constitutional amendment on the ballot of interest to all state residents, taxpayers and drivers: Question 1, which will create a "lockbox" for state transportation funds.

  • Stop the stopgap thinking on transportation funding

    Stop the stopgap thinking on transportation funding

    As of late last week, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the Baltimore area hovered around $2.71, about six cents below the national average and a few pennies less than a week ago. One year ago, the average was $3.52. And where are gasoline prices headed in September?...

  • How to fix Md.'s aging infrastructure

    How to fix Md.'s aging infrastructure

    Recent Sun articles and editorials have pointed the way forward for Maryland's aging infrastructure ("States scramble as federal highway funding erodes," Feb. 21).

  • Shouldn't Md. already have been inspecting aging bridges?

    Shouldn't Md. already have been inspecting aging bridges?

    The top transportation official in the state has ordered an immediate inspection of 27 aging bridges. This announcement comes after a slab of concrete from an I-495 overpass struck a car in Prince George's County ("Md. to inspect aging bridges," Feb. 13).

  • A pothole jars home the true cost of tax cuts

    A pothole jars home the true cost of tax cuts

    I just spent $650 for new wheel and a new tire because of damage from a pothole on an urban street. I was not speeding. I needed AAA service at 10 o'clock at night. And it could have been worse.

  • Tell Congress to fix our crumbling transportation infrastructure

    Tell Congress to fix our crumbling transportation infrastructure

    For nearly six years America has not had a long-term transportation bill. While Congress has bickered and passed short-term patchwork bills, our nation's roads, bridges and public transit systems have deteriorated. Moreover, projects to modernize and expand our transportation infrastructure have...

  • Gas tax is wasted

    Gas tax is wasted

    In your editorial, "Congress on the clock" (April 13), you talk about the federal Highway Trust Fund going bankrupt unless Congress acts to raise taxes. Motorists deserve better highways and bridge repair, but the truth is not all of the tax money motorists pay goes to build or repair roads or...

  • What's the cost of lower tolls?

    What's the cost of lower tolls?

    It is my understanding that Maryland's transportation infrastructure is in serious need of maintenance. If that is the case, what could possibly be the point of reducing the tolls on our highways, other than to make political capital ("Panel expected to OK toll reductions," May 7)?