1:05 PM EST, January 25, 2013
Those things that make Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller a formidable adversary in Annapolis can sure come in handy sometimes. This week, he single-handedly restored to relevancy one of the most important issues facing Maryland — a looming shortfall in transportation funding — that others in his party seem to regard as radioactive.
Call him irascible, call him egotistical, call him a bull in a china shop, but the real lesson here is to always call on the longest-serving Senate leader in Maryland history when it's time to pick up an unpopular cause like raising the gas tax. The veteran Prince George's County politician may often be wrong, but he's never in doubt.
Mind you, what President Miller is actually proposing — essentially splitting the gas tax increase between state and local governments so that, in theory, the metropolitan area could have a higher rate to finance metropolitan public transit — is not a good idea for a variety of reasons. But at least the bill, which is expected to be formally submitted next week, keeps the issue alive, providing lawmakers time to reason out a better alternative.
Mr. Miller's plan features a 3 percent sales tax on gasoline, assessed statewide at the wholesale level (half what Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed last year) and would create regional authorities in the Washington and Baltimore area to fund transit. Want a Red Line in Baltimore? In theory, local governments would collectively have to support higher prices at the pump in the city and surrounding counties.
The Senate president also calls on the state to lease the Intercounty Connector to private interests to help provide a short-term boost in transportation funds. Such a move would be fraught with complications (including paying off the bonds that financed the project), so it's difficult to know whether that might be a wise choice for the state or not. But based on experience elsewhere, legislators should be skeptical that it would do much more than provide some short-term cash in exchange for a much larger pile of long-term toll revenue that goes to private investors and not back into local transportation projects.
Make no mistake, the concept of a regional financing authority for metropolitan-area transit is not unreasonable. Other cities around the country have bus, subway and light rail systems financed and operated by such authorities. The Washington suburban counties are part of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The problem for Baltimore is that we have quite a different system in place. The city's transit properties are owned and operated by state government. The region can't suddenly take full responsibility for financing a system that's been supported in the past by the Transportation Trust Fund and its elaborate blend of sources, ranging from a portion of corporate taxes to vehicle licensing fees. Not when raising the "local" gas tax by up to 5 cents or, worse, raising property taxes are the only means available to local government.
But perhaps most troubling of all is that the Miller plan takes Maryland away from its tradition of shared sacrifice and shared rewards. The urban areas didn't stand in the way when it was time to pay for Western Maryland's I-68 or a half-billion dollars in "Reach the Beach" upgrades to U.S. 50 on the Eastern Shore — projects those rural areas could never have generated sufficient tax revenue to pay for by themselves.
Are we really so divided a state that we must draw lines over transportation? If so, you can bet the first places to be shortchanged will be the rural counties. Surely, it's the height of "dumb growth" to have a tax system that encourages more highway driving and penalizes city living. Why pit one part of the state against another, particularly if the only real purpose of these transportation policy gyrations is to protect a handful of Democrats from having to support a gas tax increase?
Even Mr. Miller's attempt at a politically palatable way to raise revenue will no doubt be vilified by the usual gas tax opponents. But we'll grant the critics this — at least most seem to recognize that Maryland has insufficient transportation funds and can't stay on the current path. They just haven't come up with anything better to meet that need than raising a gas tax that has remained the same 23.5 cents per gallon for two decades, even as gasoline prices have nearly tripled (and transportation costs have risen, too).
It's all very well to debate how to meet that future need, but let's keep the conversation reality-based (public-private partnerships are worth exploring but hardly the key to solvency). Raising transportation revenue means somebody has to pay somewhere down the road. At least the gas tax means the people actually using the roads are first in line.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun