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News Opinion Editorial

Can Md. follow Va.'s lead on transportation?

The General Assembly returned to Annapolis today, and the biggest idea floating around comes from across the Potomac. With the details of Gov. Martin O'Malley's agenda a mystery for the time being, lawmakers in Maryland's capital find themselves confronted by a bold, if not altogether sound, idea from Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell to increase the commonwealth's transportation funding by $3.1 billion over the next five years. On Tuesday, he proposed eliminating the politically unpopular gas tax altogether and replacing it with higher sales taxes, a variety of fees and as-yet nonexistent revenue from taxing sales over the Internet. It may not produce enough revenue to address gridlock that's as bad as or worse than Maryland's. It raises serious questions about equity and would likely force cuts to other priorities. But it represents a much more forceful attempt to tackle a long-term threat to than the regional economy than Mr. O'Malley appears inclined to muster.

The success of Mr. McDonnell's proposal is by no means assured — Virginia's legislative session has also only just begun — but it's bound to lead to questions about whether Maryland should adopt the same model in its efforts to address a transportation funding system that will soon be able to cover no more than maintenance of existing roads and transit lines. It shouldn't. The gas tax, for all its unpopularity, operates as something akin to a user fee. Those who use the roads most pay the most. It is imperfect because it is a per-gallon fee that does not rise with inflation, and because it runs counter to the move toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. But for the time being, it remains the fairest and most effective way to raise the kind of money necessary to maintain our existing infrastructure and to build our way out of some of the worst traffic in the nation. Using a general sales tax increase to fund transportation projects is more regressive and takes much more out of the pockets of the poor, many of whom don't have cars anyway. If lawmakers are resistant to adding as much to the gas tax as would be needed to support Maryland's transportation needs, they could at least find a way to index it to inflation.

But the notion that if Virginia became the first state in the nation to abandon its gas tax Maryland would be under competitive pressure to follow suit is the ultimate in tail-wagging-the-dog public policy. It's possible that some Marylanders would drive across the bridge to Virginia to fill up, but that's not likely to have a major impact on either state's economy, particularly since Mr. McDonnell is not proposing to eliminate diesel taxes.

What should give Annapolis lawmakers pause is the prospect that Virginia could embark on a major road and transit building program at a time when Maryland is cutting back. Better transportation infrastructure, more than the precise mechanism each state uses to fund its services, could have a significant impact on tipping the competitive balance between the two states when it comes to attracting jobs and new residents.

Faced with his counterpart's proposal, Mr. O'Malley reiterated his view that it is essential for Maryland to invest more in its transportation infrastructure, but he was somewhat blase about the prospect of making that happen. He noted that he had proposed two basic approaches to the problem — either a straight gas tax increase or using the sales tax to generate new revenue, whether by applying it to gas sales or increasing the state's general 6 percent rate. And he said he was willing to listen to any other ideas lawmakers have. But unlike Mr. McDonnell, he is not leading the charge, at least not so far.

Mr. O'Malley has had an unfortunate tendency to lead from behind on controversial issues, and this year is looking to be no exception. He has been noncommittal about whether he will personally lead the charge to abolish Maryland's death penalty, essentially ceding that issue to NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. He has said he will introduce measures in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, but based on his comments today, it appears that he will leave it up to legislators to pursue the most meaningful gun control legislation available to the state, such as beefed-up inspections of gun dealers and a licensing system for handgun purchasers. And he has certainly not begun the work necessary to build a coalition behind a gas tax increase. He has not engaged the business community, and he has not filled the vacancy at the head of the state transportation department, which hampers his ability to translate the abstract pain of a gas tax increase into a list of projects that could generate public support. If Mr. O'Malley wants to see a major investment in roads and transit, he needs to roll up his sleeves and make it happen, and this legislative session is his last realistic chance.

Here's hoping that, for Mr. O'Malley, Mr. McDonnell can be to transportation what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was to gay marriage. After Mr. Cuomo — who, like Mr. O'Malley, is considered a possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate — personally led the charge for marriage equality there, Mr. O'Malley got into the act and followed suit in Maryland. If Mr. McDonnell, a Republican governor with possible national ambitions of his own, has the courage to lead an effort to raise taxes for transportation in a state where national anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist's views on the matter are relevant, why can't Governor O'Malley do it in Maryland?

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